I thank everyone for being here today. Before we dive into the agenda, I want to start, as always, by acknowledging that we're meeting today on the unceded hereditary land of the Algonquin people.
Also, I want to invite the committee to send our best wishes to David Yurdiga. He's been home in Fort McMurray since Tuesday dealing with the very difficult situation there. Of course, all of our best wishes are with him.
There are two issues on the agenda today. I propose that we deal with them together. The first is the main estimates, and the second is the report on plans and priorities. To speak with us about those issues are the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett; Hélène Laurendeau, the deputy minister of INAC; and Paul Thoppil, the CFO.
Thanks to all of you for coming today.
Again, committee members, I want to go over my proposed model for the meeting today. I'd like to invite the minister and her colleagues to have 15 minutes to present what they need to get through. They advise me that they probably only need about 12 minutes, so we'll probably finish that a bit early.
I've created a list with the clerk of one speaking order that should take about 51 minutes. By the time we do all that and get through the voting, we should finish around five or so. Now, I'm proposing that only as long as every committee member is okay with only going through one order of questions. I had some assent from some members earlier, before we sat, but does that seem reasonable?
Before we begin, we also want to offer our condolences and support to the residents of Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas as they're dealing with this absolutely devastating tragedy. I was able to speak to three chiefs last evening. It's quite amazing to hear from Fort McKay how they're actually receiving people from other areas. This is something that I think this committee will also be very engaged in.
I too note the absence of the member for Fort McMurray—Cold Lake, Mr. Yurdiga. I think we all believe he's in the right place, back helping the people in his community with this heartbreaking disaster. It is what members of Parliament do. I hope you'll convey to him that if there's anything our department can do to help or anything he hears on the ground, we would very much like that direct contact if that's possible.
It's a pleasure to be back here at your committee, acknowledging the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I am here today with our new deputy Minister, Hélène Laurendeau, and our chief financial officer, Paul Thoppil.
They promise to take all the tough questions.
I think you know that I am somebody who believes that the role of committees is hugely important, and we want to make sure that you know we believe in the role you play. This is a fundamental role in the parliamentary process, and the really important role is holding government to account. That is the role of all parliamentarians from all parties, and we take your job very seriously.
I want to work with you to ensure that you have all the necessary information for this essential work.
We want you to know that if there's anything we weren't able to answer today, we will get back to you. I think we've been doing that reasonably well. I need to know if there's any information you need that I don't have. We'll get it for you.
I also think this is an opportunity for all of us to recognize the people who are watching carefully at home and who care about the work of this committee. It's an opportunity for all of us to use this as an example of how government works and how parliamentary committees hold governments to account. I think that as we see this collision today of plans and priorities, main estimates, and budget 2016, it is going to be quite an interesting exercise of how we do that when it all comes together.
I think you know that because we're doing main estimates together with budget 2016, there's some confusion as to what main estimates really mean. I want to explain that the estimates, as I think most of you know, are the total of all funding that's already been approved by Treasury Board. That's a separate check and balance that the President of the Treasury Board puts in place. These are never an estimate of the total spending for the year; it's just what has already been approved.
As Treasury Board approves new funding or renews existing programs, we come back to Parliament, and I to this committee, through the supplementary estimates process. Sometimes there is an understanding that it's something we hadn't thought of yet, but it is actually just things that haven't yet had the detail necessary to get Treasury Board approval.
As we know, there's also a disconnect in the sequence between main estimates, reports on plans and priorities, and the budget. I think we all know that this system is archaic and unclear. That's why the President of the Treasury Board has committed to modernize the estimates process to ensure that Parliament has timely and accurate information.
As you've all read, our main estimates total about $7.5 billion in spending and reflect a net decrease of about $726.3 million. This may alarm some, but I'm here to reassure you that the vast majority of these decreases relate to the targeted initiatives that either have had funding reprofiled to future years or have had funding replaced by new funding in budget 2016.
I am happy that we have this opportunity to discuss the main estimates and the report on plans and priorities in the context of budget 2016.
As you know, in budget 2016 we're committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for indigenous peoples so that first nations, Inuit and Métis youth, wherever they live in Canada, have hope. You have heard many times that budget 2016 makes historic investments in indigenous peoples, totalling $8.4 billion over five years. We've been very pleased that AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde has said:
||This budget invests in important priorities for First Nations and all Canadians. Investments in housing, clean water, education, and child welfare will bring long-needed relief for those living in third world conditions, and build a stronger economy for everyone.
We know that this budget is only a start. Beyond new investments in 2016, we're working in full partnership with first nations to establish a new fiscal relationship, one that gives their communities sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding. This is to be a new relationship. It means that people of first nations have the opportunity to plan as other communities have the ability to plan, as the chair knows all so well.
Although I don't have enough time to describe all the investments set out in budget 2016 that relate to aboriginal peoples, I would like to mention a few key initiatives.
Education has always been top of mind for everybody in terms of the way out. We know that closing the gaps in first nations education outcomes is critical, and we know that we must be held accountable for the results. Numerous reports, including from the Auditor General, have confirmed that chronic underfunding of first nations education systems has held first nations students back.
Budget 2016 contains transformational funding totalling $2.6 billion over five years in K-to-12 education. We are focused on investments in programs that will improve the literacy and numeracy rates, build and improve schools and classrooms, and better support the integration of language and culture into first nations education, which we know is the way to success.
I want to say very clearly that we respect the first nation's jurisdiction over education and that we will not act unilaterally in this area.
We will work nation to nation as a partner to ensure the goals set by first nations are achieved and to support first nations-led.
The government has also made a commitment to promote reconciliation with the Métis nation through the recognition of rights, partnership, and a renewed relationship, from one nation to another.
As Métis National Council President Chartier recently said, the Trudeau government has already recognized the Métis Nation and is prepared to deal with them on a “nation-to-nation” basis.
As a first step, in recognition of the entrepreneurial spirit of Métis in Canada, budget 2016 proposes $25 million over five years to support economic development for the Métis nation.
We all know that we have to increase the proactive support for indigenous children and their families, keep more children out of foster care, and support them to grow up with a secure personal cultural identity.
Child and family services on reserve must be overhauled, and we are committed to working with Dr. Cindy Blackstock, the Assembly of First Nations, and provinces and territories to fix it. As a start, we will provide nearly $635 million over five years, in addition to funding the first nations child and family services program. This will allow us to respond to indigenous calls to expand the previous pilots of the enhanced prevention-focused approach to first nations child and family services on reserve to all provinces and territories.
We will also work in partnership with provinces, territories, indigenous communities, and the Ministry of Health to ensure Jordan’s principle is expanded and applied in a way that always puts the health and well-being of children first.
Every family—every child—deserves access to clean water. Budget 2016 provides $2.24 billion to first nations communities to improve on-reserve water infrastructure and waste management. This funding will support our commitment to put an end to long-term boil water advisories on reserve within five years.
Housing is also a basic need and all Canadians should have safe housing.
To address urgent housing needs on reserve, budget 2016 provides $554.3 million over two years, beginning this year.
The need for affordable housing is also particularly high in the north and in Inuit communities. We heard clearly from the indigenous members of Parliament that focusing on housing only on reserve was not going to serve their needs and that there needed to be a separate allocation for the north and in Inuit communities.
As pointed out by Natan Obed, the president of ITK:
||The $170 million earmarked in the budget for building affordable housing in Inuit Nunangat is welcome given the severity of crowding in our four regions, and I look forward to working with the government to find ways to achieve the much larger investment that is necessary.
Food insecurity is another particularly pressing problem in northern communities.
We are committed to working with northerners to update and expand the nutrition north program to ensure northerners can feed their families and better access country foods. As a first step, budget 2016 provides $64.5 million over five years, and $13.8 million per year ongoing, to expand the nutrition north Canada program to support all northern isolated communities.
The government believes that the historic $8.4 billion in investments in indigenous communities through budget 2016—on their priorities—will improve living conditions and social and economic outcomes.
I also want to make the point many other investments in this budget beyond this $8.4 billion will have a profound positive impact on the lives of indigenous peoples in Canada. From the new fairer tax-free Canada child benefit to increasing the northern residents deduction and enhancing Canada student grants, these and other measures will benefit all Canadians, including indigenous peoples in Canada.
Last June, Gwich'in elder Ray Jones said this in the Gitxsan language on the morning of the final ceremony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
||Shed Dim Amma gauu dingus Mel.
This is what it means:
|| The canoe must be uprighted.
I believe that budget 2016 is an important first step to uprighting the canoe and to true reconciliation.
Thank you so much, Minister.
I want to get to the brunt, then, of my questioning around funding. As everyone knows, I've put forward a motion—or I will be—to look specifically at funding, because I really do see it as one of the key short-term things that we can try to deal with to lead towards more self-determination and self-government.
Under the grant process today, as you know, it really is a very short and narrow window of funding that is very specifically geared to a particular area. To me, once again, it's that whole paternalistic notion that we know how best to spend their money rather than indigenous communities setting their own priorities.
My own personal view is that if we can change the grant structure so that it's operational and moves more towards self-determination, then it also gives that responsibility of establishing priorities, which then leads to accountability, which then leads to a true nation-to-nation relationship. As long as they are beholden to us for the purse strings, how do you have a nation-to-nation relationship?
I point out to you today that we had a group in our environment committee, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation, which has established the Thaidene Nëné Park up in the Northwest Territories. One of the key factors in them being very close to reaching this agreement was the trust fund that was set up that gave them very long-term and secure funding. They had the trust, and based on that trust, we're able to build on the relationship. It once again reconfirmed my whole view of that.
I want you now to just speak to that. Is the department looking in the same direction? We've have to really start looking at the whole funding mechanism to lead toward self-determination and self-government.
This budget is very important, particularly in terms of the money around education and child welfare. There are some really significant things that will make a difference.
We know that if people are successful, finish high school, and go on to post-secondary education, they are much less represented in prison. When kids drop out because they didn't learn to read properly, they get into trouble.
My experience in prisons is that there are way too many indigenous people there who shouldn't be there, and that this comes to the uneven application of justice or things like breaching conditions. I was at Headingley prison for women. I asked what most of those people had done. All they had done was breach their conditions. They hadn't been sentenced to jail in the first place, yet the prison was full of people who had breached their conditions, gone to administrative.... Now, not only are they in prison, but they're no longer with their children, and it begets, begets, begets this generational thing. I think the correctional investigator has done a really important job.
It's also no place for people with mental health problems. We have to help people get healthy again, and I think that with some of the drug courts, the indigenous courts, and some of the things that aren't in my ministry but that I am very keen on, and with the kind of money that is going to be required with the health accord on healing and wellness, that's the way we're going to get there.
The money I am most proud of is the money for secure personal cultural identity. Investing in language and culture in these schools is how these kids feel good about themselves as proud indigenous people in this country. That is how they make healthy choices—good health, education, economic outcomes. That's what all the kids have said to me: they want to be on the land and they want to know their language and culture. It cannot be funded anymore as some fluffy extra if you have time or money for it. It really is a core service that this government is committed to doing.
I have three questions that I really hope to get answers for, so I'm going to give you all three, and hopefully we can work our way through them.
I wasn't going to go here, but I have to go back to the first nations transparency act. I'm going to use two examples.
If I'm a citizen of Kamloops, there's nothing that prevents me from looking at Kelowna's audited statements and vice versa, or looking at those for Timmins, for example. I heard you talk about a pass key, so do you believe that a first nations Osoyoos band member shouldn't have access to Kamloops statements? Integrated with that is this: Bell Canada posts its shares report online and so does TELUS. I went through a number of the statements that had been posted, and there is nowhere that I believe it would ever erode business interests. I am hearing from band members who are writing me and saying that they are very uncomfortable that you have moved away from the first nations transparency act. Again, this is a basic level of transparency, whether it's Kelowna, Kamloops, Bell, or TELUS in terms of what is available. Truly, for a band member, sometimes the ability to make comparisons is important. That's number one.
Number two, I'm glad to hear you talk about Project Venture. I've had calls from the directors. It's been a very successful criminal prevention program. They are very, very concerned right now. Normally they have had operating money that's moved forward to them, and they're thinking that they're going to have to collapse the program. I know it's not yours, but I just wanted to share that.
My third area is that when we supported murdered and missing indigenous women we also were very concerned that it would impact the delivery and support for on-the-ground prevention programs, so I want you to reassure me, because it appears that there's a decrease in the funding for the family violence prevention program. When I take the budget, the estimates, and everything into account, the former government gave approximately $12 million to support the work of the family violence prevention program. We were hoping that it would be matched or increased. The new budget is fairly murky in this area. There's $6.7 million per year over the next five years, and $3.5 million to better support shelters, so it's very murky. Perhaps your officials might be wanting to look—
I want to say that I for one applaud the fact that the transparency act is gone, as do I think a lot of aboriginal people in the north for sure, and probably aboriginal populations across Canada. I've worked with many companies in the Northwest Territories, companies that aboriginal band councils had shares in, and this act tripped us up non-stop. Every affiliate that the council had a share in had to disclose its revenues, so the competition saw that and the potential partners walked away because they didn't want to be involved with companies or band council projects that also had to disclose.
It was not a good act. It went against the principle of own-source revenue generation. We're trying to create healthy communities. We're trying to create independent communities. This didn't help that. It flies in the face of the nation-to-nation concept, and I'm glad it's gone.
On the nutrition north program review, I'm hoping that we're taking a holistic approach on how we move forward on that front. I still think— and I've mentioned this before, so it's not going to be a surprise—that we need to pull in the Department of Transportation to take a look at the size of the runways in our smaller aboriginal communities. We have runways that are just short of the length that is needed to allow the larger cargo planes to land, so we have planes landing with half a load. We have planes landing with half the seats filled. In my campaign, I witnessed some communities where people had to wait: a plane landed with 18 seats and only nine people could get on.
I think that if we're going to make a change, then we have to include looking at other things, not only the subsidy. The $60-million subsidy is one thing that's going to be ongoing forever, but if we change the length of runways and we start building roads, we're going to eliminate that subsidy. We also have to include community gardens and local wild foods. Those things should be part of the review or part of the consideration as we move forward.
Maybe I could ask you to talk to those points, if you would.