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The AG finds true scandal in lack of action on emergencies in First Nation country

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The new Auditor General (AG), Michael Ferguson, is following in the footsteps of his predecessor in focusing on the failure of the federal government to live up to its obligations to First Nations.

Former AG Sheila Fraser reported with piercing and unflinching clarity on the inadequate funding and management arrangements for on-reserve health, education and other services.

Fraser and her team of auditors frequently and diligently cast a light on the nasty, stupid and utterly ineffective system for funding First Nations’ services.

The system the federal government has foisted on Aboriginal communities is one of annually renewable contribution agreements. These agreements provide for no predictability of funding, no reasonable assessment of actual needs and are laden with costly and arduous reporting requirements.

The former AG said, on many occasions throughout her tenure, that Aboriginal Canadians on reserves do not get anywhere near a basic, acceptable level of service.

Their schools, housing, health care and community infrastructure are all woefully wanting when measured by general Canadian standards.

The picture Fraser painted is radically different from the false one too many Canadians have of First Nations reserves as spoiled and pampered, showered with taxpayer largesse.

The former AG returned to the Aboriginal question in her final report, in the spring 2011, and had to admit that all her admonitions seemed to have failed to convince federal bureaucrats and politicians to change their ways.

Bureaucratic lassitude in dealing with natural and man-made disasters

The current AG is still new to the job, and may have the energy and fortitude to keep his predecessor’s battle going.

In his just-released fall report for 2013, Ferguson looks at the frightful inadequacy of emergency services for First Nations communities.

We are talking here about the capacity to respond to fires, floods, water contamination, outbreaks of suicide and similar catastrophes. Ferguson and his colleagues cover the gamut.

First Nations reserves, because of their isolation and poverty, are far more vulnerable than most other Canadian communities to natural and human-caused disasters.

But, according to the AG report, the federal government’s response to these emergencies shows the same bureaucratic lassitude that has characterized its efforts on education and other First Nations services.

To conduct this audit the AG’s folks visited ten First Nations communities in four provinces. They also spoke to representatives from other communities and to national First Nations leadership. The auditors conducted their work over a four year period.

The facts and figures they cite would be shocking, if Canadians could still be shocked by any of the outrages visited on First Nation communities.

Nearly four out of ten First Nations communities experienced severe emergencies

To start with, the AG notes how widespread and frequent emergencies are in First Nation country.

They counted 447 emergencies during the four year period. These included fire, flood, severe weather, landslides, loss of essential services such as water or power and environmental contamination.

These emergencies affected 241 communities, representing nearly four out of ten First Nations communities in Canada.

And emergencies have not been one time events for many communities.

Fifty-eight communities experienced emergencies in two out of the four years, 21 experienced emergencies in three out of the four years and three communities actually experienced emergencies in all four years.

At least 9,500 community members were evacuated due to major fire and flooding emergencies in the year 2011 alone.

And two years later, May 15, 2013, a significant number of these people -- 2,000 individuals -- had not yet returned to their homes.

These emergencies carry grave consequences.

"Severe and repeated flooding in some communities caused isolation and family disruptions due to evacuation to other sites for long periods of time, including interruption in education," the reports states, while noting that flooding is only one kind of severe emergency.

And the impact of these emergencies is not short term. The damage to the long term health of the entire community can be lasting.

In the words of the report:

Exposure to hazards, such as flooding, smoke from fires, unsafe drinking water and possible evacuation from the community, can...cause physiological and physical stress on community members in general, and particularly on the more vulnerable members, such as elders, children and the sick and injured.

A tangled political and bureaucratic mess

Repeatedly the AG report underlines the scandalous truth that the planning and facilities for mitigating emergencies affecting First Nations are far inferior to those Canadians in general can expect.

As with the provision of education, health and other services, the prevention and mitigation of emergencies in First Nation’s country are hobbled by ineffective, underfunded and cumbersome administrative arrangements.

The whole emergency response system is built on complex agreements that involve not only the First Nations themselves, but the provinces -- which the federal government contracts to provide fire services, for example -- and non-governmental organizations.

The AG argues that this web of agreements is tangled, indeed. In fact, it is pretty much a tangled mess.

Here is just a bit of what Ferguson’s office has to say about all this.

1. It is unclear who is supposed to do what: "The lack of formal agreements that clearly outline roles and responsibilities for emergency management on reserves has created ambiguity and confusion...and has resulted in some disagreements."

2. Instead of helping First Nations, governments and other parties are taking each other to court: "In some cases, [the lack of clarity in roles] contributed to legal actions between the federal government and a provincial government, between the federal government and several First Nations, and between the federal government and a class of individuals."

3. The results mean substandard service for Aboriginal Canadians: "The lack of agreements also increases the risk that First Nations communities might not have access to comparable emergency assistance services that are available to other residents in their respective provinces."

None of this should be news to those who pay even a modicum of attention to what happens in First Nations communities.

The roots of this dysfunction are neither bureaucratic nor even political. They lie in the failure to foster true First Nations self-government.

More deeply, they lie in the failure -- from the never heeded promise of the 250 year old Royal Proclamation to today -- to treat Aboriginal Canadians as peoples, or if you will, as nations.

Way back in the 1990s, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples drew a detailed roadmap to First Nations’ self-government and self-sufficiency, which included revenue-sharing for natural resources.

Had Canada followed that road map, a great many of the current, seemingly intractable problems would be less severe.

Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s still relatively new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, was part of the Mulroney government that set up that Royal Commission.

If Valcourt wanted to make real progress on the Aboriginal file, he would dig out the Commission’s report, now, and read it very carefully.

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