[Witness speaks in Cree]
I am grateful to be here. My name is Sheila North Wilson from the Bunibonibee Cree Nation. An elder once told me that when we use our mother tongue first in public spaces, we are practising our sovereignty. So I do that out of respect for my sovereignty and for my people, not out of disrespect for yours.
I'm thankful to be here. I also want to preface this by saying that this is just a minor part of the big problem around this topic. I don't profess to know everything about it—I don't think anyone really does—but I'll give you some perspectives on what we know from our region.
I'm thankful for our 30 chiefs and communities that I represent and for our staff, including Dave Chadwick, and others who help us along the way.
Tansi, boozhoo, edlanet'e, and good morning. On behalf of the 30 northern Manitoba first nations representing nearly two-thirds of the province and the more than 72,000 first nations citizens of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who are Cree, Dene, and Oji-Cree, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to make this brief presentation regarding the default prevention and management policy of INAC.
As you are no doubt aware, it was brought in under the previous federal government. I think this review is timely and in fact overdue. I don't believe there are many MPs or even senators who would say that this policy has led to greater economic development on reserves. When it was brought in, the federal government had embarked on massive cuts in funding to core and operational funding for first nations organizations and tribal councils across Canada. On June 3 of that year, all first nations organizations were sent AANDC letters outlining reductions and project funding cuts that would take place in 2013 and 2014. I might add that those letters came in after 5 p.m. that day, so it was very underhanded. Core funding was reduced by 10%, and regional organization funding was reduced to a maximum of $500,000. Project funding was reduced over a two-year period.
First nations organizations on average lost over 50% of their funding. For Manitoba it was 68%, according to one report I read recently. I read that Manitoba had one of the bigger cuts across Canada.
Over a period of five years, the same federal department under-spent its budget by almost $1 billion. It was under-spending its annual budget by $218 million on average during the last few years of the former federal government. This was during a period when the public was challenging the federal government to address the unsafe water crisis on literally hundreds of reserves. Long-overdue basic infrastructure was stalled and another generation was denied equal educational funding because of their race and geographical location.
The then prime minister officially apologized for the damages caused by residential schools, but was unwilling to act to address the inequities that indigenous people endured and still endure. Instead, programs addressing our concerns were subject to funding reductions greater than in almost all other departments. The default prevention and management policy fits into that agenda, as it succeeded in reducing economic development and self-government.
I want to begin by noting that over half of our MKO first nations are under INAC management control. The default prevention and management policy, which came into effect in 2011 and was revised in 2013, is supposed to support community capacity development, so that communities continue to increase their ability to self-manage, and to prevent default and default recurrence.
This in fact means that the power and options of the local chief and council are very limited, at best. Many Manitoba first nations have been under these types of restrictions for decades under different names, including “Indian agent”. This means that for all of the most important decisions in their communities, they have had to contact INAC Winnipeg or Ottawa should the federally approved actual manager decide not to approve their recommendation.
The most recent statistics on the INAC website show that seven of our first nations have been placed under the category of “recipient managed—management action plan”. That euphemism officially means that the first nation develops a plan that is acceptable to INAC. The next two categories “recipient-appointed advisor co-management” and the “third-party funding agreement management” are stages more tightly controlled by the department. Twelve of our first nations are under these categories. A total of 46 nations in Manitoba are under the default management category, one of the highest numbers in the country.
Officially this policy is supposed to focus on prevention, management, and sustainability, but more often it is a constraint on developing sustainable communities. While this policy of the previous federal government remains, so also do the most outstanding infrastructure shortfalls of the previous government. There is no shortage of potential infrastructure projects needed on reserves across this country. Most of them were identified years ago.
It is not news that this committee and federal government analysis indicated last year that it would take $2 billion to deal with mould and the housing shortages on our reserves in northern Manitoba alone while the housing budget for the entire country in the last budget was less than a tenth of that. Estimates of the deficit for infrastructure on first nations in this country are in excess of $7 billion. Without getting into the details of what is needed at each community that MKO represents, I simply want to point out that these deplorable conditions force first nations leaders into a series of crisis situations.
Band officials are called on daily to deal with desperate calls for help from families struggling to survive in dire poverty. They and the band are constantly falling behind as they try to deal with all these pressures. We are pleased that the federal government has formally endorsed the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I think if we are truly going to implement change we need to examine the factors that keep our people down.
A week ago I spoke at the United Nations on the similarities and differences between refugee immigrants coming to Canada from elsewhere and indigenous people coming to urban settings from remote reserves.
Both groups find coming to Canadian urban centres a major challenge. The different cultures, languages, infrastructure, employment opportunities, and, frankly, often overt racism are difficult to overcome. Fortunately for most refugees, there is a lot of support to assist them. Often that is not enough, but the comparison with the situation of indigenous immigrants coming to cities is very telling. Without high schools let alone post-secondary institutions on most of our reserves, many of us are forced to go to cities following elementary school. As I can attest personally having come from a remote fly-in reserve for high school, it is a huge change and frequently a dangerous one for young women and girls. Without any support and no understanding of the threats and dangers that are out there, I came close to disaster more than once when I left home at 15 to go to high school in Winnipeg. Our reserve, like most reserves, had no resources to assist me or others. The fact is that most first nations living under default prevention and management have no real power or influence in deciding band priorities. As Senator Murray Sinclair said last night, progress on implementing the TRC calls to action has been quite limited after 20 months. For first nations under default prevention and management, these changes are virtually impossible to see. The statistics of despair have not changed. If we are going to address reconciliation seriously in this country, I suggest that taking away the strings that control many reserves would be a good place to start.
First nations peoples were self-sufficient for thousands of years before colonization and the creation of the Indian Act and their relocation to small reserves. The default management policies of INAC reinforce this control by preventing the development of self-government in our first nations. When we look at the future of my province and much of the country, it is increasingly understood that the greater participation of indigenous people in this economy is critical to their future economic prosperity. Ensuring the success of indigenous advancement in the workplace will take major investments on and off reserves. The payoffs for the economy will be in the billions of dollars. Having first nations in charge of their own communities is a tangible first step in the economic development of first nations communities.
Despite good intentions, much of the proposed infrastructure spending committed in the current fiscal year for development on reserves has not been spent. One of the reasons for this is the continued inability of first nations governments to plan and work with the private and public sector because they do not have the power to do so. Projects get delayed, and in the case of our fly-in communities, these postponements can be for a year or longer.
As Cindy Blackstock has so eloquently put it, children only have one life. We cannot endlessly delay action while waiting for incremental change. The trauma occurring on reserves must stop. Continuing to promote the same failed policies and expecting new results makes no sense.
Instead, let's practise true reconciliation and acknowledge that controlling local government from Ottawa is not improving conditions on reserves. It is time that we helped to develop local government excellence, not just the continued industry of outsiders overseeing all decisions and focusing on past overruns caused by inadequate financing.
Tomorrow the federal government releases its budget for 2017 and 2018. As much as I want to see commitments to address the many economic challenges, I would also like to see a major commitment to take off the chains controlling so many of our first nations.
Thank you for listening to me today.
Kinanaskomitin. Meegwetch. Mahsi Cho.
Thank you for the presentation, Grand Chief.
You've raised several issues around this table on different occasions. I think there is some real concern right across the country in our aboriginal communities and reserves about the level of support that's being provided to enable our communities to become healthy and functional.
As you've indicated, the cuts made by the previous government are probably the number one cause for where our communities are today. I have communities that have indicated to me that their budgets have been reduced by up to 40% and 50%. They're at the point of becoming dysfunctional. There was not enough money invested in core funding as it was, and reducing it by 40% leaves no room for capacity. Most communities are just able to keep the lights on and keep the heat on, and that's about it. There's really no management.
Also, INAC doesn't spend any money on training in the communities, not that I've seen. We have band councils and people who are coming in to manage who have virtually no experience, because we have no capacity locally. I see people who come into the community and are sometimes just wandering through, and who end up getting hired to be the manager, with no experience.
Through my own experience, I've recognized that the communities that do the best have people who are local, people who are locally trained, have homes there, and don't plan to go anywhere.
I want to try to get some indication of what your priority recommendations would be, and I want you to maybe expand a little more on the core funding issue.
You're right. I think you know more about the situation than a lot of people might. We start off on a deficit and a negative when we start talking about core financing in our first nations, so it's not a surprise that some first nations and managers get accused of mismanagement.
For example, how are you supposed to predict how many funerals you're supposed to cover for the year? In the budget at the beginning of the year, there may be $10,000 for funerals, but maybe you have a rash of suicides or poor health conditions. The chief and council are forced to move money over to cover a lot of these expenses for our people, who don't have the means to pay for a coffin and for funeral costs. That's just one area that is often overlooked when you talk about budgets. Roads are another one. In one of our communities, I think they get $50,000 a year to maintain their roads, and it costs a million dollars to do that in actual numbers. How are they supposed to account for that? When they do, they're considered to be mismanaging the funds.
This government, the Indian Act, and all the policies are negatively impacting our people to the point that it's crippling our first nations. There are many good ideas in our communities. Our people know how to run their own communities and run their own affairs, but the way it's set up right now is not allowing that. We need to change these policies.
I think the biggest and most obvious recommendation is that we need to honour these treaties and start giving to our communities the right amount that they need to be able to function. That's based on treaties. It's not based on a handout. This is supposed to be money and resources that we are supposed to share together as a people in this country, not a handout to our first nations.
That's often how it's characterized in the public and in the media: that we're asking for a handout. That's not right. We have as much right as anyone else does to the resources and the profits from the resources of our communities and our regions. In Manitoba, 80% of the energy that goes to Manitoba Hydro comes from our north, from my region, and we benefit the least. We still have the highest rates in energy bills in our province. We have the poorest communities in our province, yet 80% of that energy that the Government of Manitoba uses and sells to other places comes from our region.
I think one of the biggest hopes I have is that as indigenous people we're getting into all different facets of society, and one of them is the aboriginal financing officers organization. I think it's called the AFOA. I know that in Swampy Cree some members from there are part of this AFOA. They are very capable and very intelligent in dealing with finances.
I think we just need more capacity building on that level and on the management level to start to address a lot of the concerns that even our communities have in how we manage our finances. We assume that every chief should know how to finance and how to manage their books, but chiefs are chiefs, and they're elected to lead the community. They're not necessarily elected to run the books, but I think we give that false hope on that. It's a racist policy when we think that we should control everything that the chief does and that they're responsible for everything that the community is responsible for.
Really, we need a lot of help in our communities in capacity building. Like it is for any municipal city, it is important to build that capacity at all levels, including the financial area and management.
We're now in a new age. I know that a lot of people want to go back to the old ways and start living off the land, and I commend people who want to do that and want to live that way, but at the same time, there are a lot of other people who want to look forward and build their communities in a modern, current way. There are ways for them to do that are still respectful to our first nations. I think a lot of people are already thinking that way. You'll see that a lot of our communities are actually managed very well. We don't hear enough about those. The ones that manage their communities and affairs very well are the ones that are able to have consistent leadership in their communities. We don't see enough of that.
The communities that are suffering the most, I believe, are the ones impacted directly by the Indian Act, with the short-term election and the terms they're living under. By the time they get their footing and understand all the requirements of running a community as a chief, it's time for them to go, and then someone else has to start all over again. That's a policy of the Indian Act, which talks about when the elections should be run. Unfortunately, it was built that way—to fail—and I think we need to change that. I know that some communities are going into four-year terms now, and that's going to help a lot, but we need to do that across the board and start looking at the policies that are not helping.
Certainly as I read through the audit, I saw there were some concerns that were perhaps a little bit bigger, having to decide between food and shelter.
My big concern, and I think I've spoken about it regularly.... I agree that transparency has to be available to the communities. If there's funding for child care or if there's funding for lunch programs, with detailed reporting, it's the community members who are going to be able to hold their chiefs and councils to account.
I'm getting more and more community members who are calling and are very concerned. Obviously, the chiefs did not like the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. We're now 18 months in and we have a really haphazard approach to giving information to community members, and there's an increasing concern.
Are you putting pressure on in terms of saying, “We have to have a system in place that's going to be accountable to our community members”? To me, that's a really important step.
For the most part, no. But I know that there are sometimes what's called a northern post allowance for federal workers and others who get extra funding to buy the expensive food in our isolated communities, so when they're sent up there as teachers or other professionals they get a little bit more money for that to work.
The other thing I know about is the nutrition north program, which subsidizes supposedly some food but most of those subsidies end up going to the North West Company, which is being subsidized to deliver the food there. It doesn't always reach the first nations and the people themselves because the subsidy is eaten up by the company itself to cover its expenses to deliver that food, and it is expensive to deliver food there. I don't doubt that, but there are also other ways we can use the nutrition north money including helping build gardens and greenhouses so the people in the communities themselves can grow their own food. We could subsidize that way, but we could also subsidize country foods because that's what people relied on before and it made them healthy.
Unfortunately, in Shamattawa, for example, when the northern store there burned down a few months ago, it crippled the community. The ability for people to sustain themselves off the land was taken away slowly and surely, and we were left relying on western-based grocery stores to sustain us. When that's taken away, it harms the community. I think in the long term if it had extended I think our people would have figured it out and they would have been okay.
At the same time, I know that that's not always possible with every community because as much as we think it's an easy fix to go live off the land, it takes money to go live off the land and resources, and even the skills that were there before are lacking because our young people are not engaged as much as our previous generations in that kind of lifestyle. There are many things that have changed and are hurting our communities in all kinds of ways.