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View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'm pleased to be appearing once more before the committee to discuss the main estimates of Indigenous Services Canada.
I'd like to begin by acknowledging that we're on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I'm joined by Jean-François Tremblay, deputy minister; and Paul Thoppil, chief finances, results and delivery officer.
Now if my French didn't wake you up....
Also, I am also pleased to have Valerie Gideon here.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Before getting into my remarks, I would like to, first of all, thank members of the committee for their work over the last month studying Bill C-92 and the proposed amendments. The amendments accepted last week from all sides strengthened this bill. As many of you know, I was glad to see that it passed third reading last night unanimously. Thank you very much. Your hard work on this was really appreciated.
A vital component of our government's renewed relationship with indigenous peoples is our commitment to take action and dismantle the colonial structures of the past. Since the Prime Minister's announcement on August 28, 2017, my officials and Minister Bennett's officials have been working hard to establish the necessary structures and processes to make this transformation a reality.
In 2019-20, we look forward to dissolving Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and in its place creating Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada as one department and Indigenous Services Canada as another. This change will better enable the government to continue its work on a renewed relationship with indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. It better positions the government to build that relationship while closing the socio-economic gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous people and improving the quality of life for first nations, Inuit and Métis people. It finally responds to a very clear recommendation by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Our focus at Indigenous Services Canada is working with partners to improve access to high-quality services for indigenous people. Our vision is to support and empower indigenous peoples to independently deliver services and address socio-economic conditions in their communities as they move forward on the path to self-determination.
As Minister of Indigenous Services, I am continuing the important work of improving the quality of services delivered to first nations, Inuit and Métis. This includes ensuring a consistent, high-quality and distinctions-based approach to the delivery of these services. A rigorous results and delivery approach is being adopted, focused on improving outcomes for indigenous people. Over time it is our goal that indigenous peoples will directly deliver programs and services to their peoples. We are working with partners to do this. I am working my way out of a job.
I would like to turn your attention to the reason that I am here today. I am now pleased to present to you my department's main estimates for 2019-20, which would total $12.3 billion if approved by Parliament. The 2019-20 main estimates reflect a net increase of about $2.9 billion, or 32%, compared to last year's main estimates. The net increase in budgetary spending primarily reflects the continuation of our investments in budgets 2016, 2017 and 2018 and in our most recent budget: all in all, investments totalling $21.3 billion to support stronger indigenous communities and to improve socio-economic outcomes.
Here are a few examples of where this year's increase will help.
There is $404.1 million in renewed funding for Jordan's principle: supporting children who need orthodontics, medical transportation, respite, land-based culture camps, medical supplies and equipment, educational assistance, mentorship, wheelchair ramps, vehicles, nutritional supplements.
There is an increase of $481.5 million for the first nations water and waste-water enhanced program, improving monitoring and testing of on-reserve community drinking water, and building on investments that have not only led to the lifting of 85 long-term drinking water advisories since 2015, but that also keep us on track to lift all LTDWAs by March 2021.
There will be an increase of $357.9 million related to non-insured health benefits for first nations people and Inuit.
There will be an increase of $324.8 million for infrastructure projects in indigenous communities.
There is an increase of $317 million for the first nations child and family services program, ensuring the actual costs of first nations child and family services agencies are covered fully, but also supporting initiatives to keep children and families together.
There is an increase of $300.2 million for first nations elementary and secondary education, supporting a renewed approach for K-to-12 education on reserve as co-developed by us and the Assembly of First Nations.
There is an increase of $113.6 million to build healthier first nations and Inuit communities, including our work to eliminate tuberculosis in Inuit Nunangat by 2030.
And there is an increase of $101.1 million to advance the new fiscal relationship with first nations under the Indian Act.
These investments continue to build on the work we have already done to foster a renewed relationship based on respect, co-operation and partnership. Together with indigenous partners, we are working hard to improve the quality of life for first nations, Inuit and Métis people. Through budget 2019, we are making investments in first nations and Inuit health, social development, education and infrastructure.
In addition to Jordan's principle and ensuring first nations children now receive the services they need when they need them, our investments in the child first initiative ensure that Inuit children have access to the essential government-funded health, social and educational products, services and supports that they need when they need them.
Budget 2019 proposes an investment of $220 million over five years to the Inuit-specific child first initiative, which will address the immediate needs of Inuit children. This investment would also support the ongoing work among the Government of Canada, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Inuit regions, and provinces and territories to develop a long-term Inuit-specific approach to better address the unique health, social and education needs of Inuit children.
There are also new investments to address urgent health and wellness needs to reduce suicide rates in Inuit communities. In order to deal with the ongoing suicide crisis in the Inuit communities, $5 million has been set aside to support the national Inuit suicide prevention strategy.
The government is also making unprecedented new investments in indigenous post-secondary education, including 2019's proposal for $327.5 million over five years to renew and expand funding for the post-secondary student support program while the government engages with first nations on the development of integrated regional education strategies.
There is $125.5 million over 10 years, and $21.8 million ongoing to support an Inuit-led post-secondary strategy, and $362 million over 10 years, and $40 million ongoing to support a Métis Nation strategy.
Starting this fiscal year, a new transfer to first nations communities, entitled “Grant to support the new fiscal relationship for First Nations under the lndian Act”, more commonly known as the 10-year grant, has been implemented.
More than 250 first nations expressed interest in the 10-year grant; 103 first nations were determined to be eligible based on criteria that we co-developed with first nations partners. They have received an offer, and I am happy to say that 83 first nations have now signed 10-year grant agreements.
The new grant, representing $1.5 billion, is funded through the existing programs of Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, which are primarily related to education, social development, infrastructure, and first nations and Inuit health programs.
To ensure that the 10-year grants grow with the needs of first nations, budget 2019 proposes that starting April 1, 2020, funding for core programs and services provided through the 10-year grants will be escalated to address key cost drivers, including inflation and population growth. The 10-year grant provides communities with the flexibility and predictability needed to support effective and independent long-term planning. This initiative is a key part for establishing a new fiscal relationship that moves towards sufficient, predictable and sustained funding for first nations communities.
Last, I think it's imperative for me to highlight the work of everyone involved in making progress on our commitment to end long-term drinking water advisories on public systems on reserve by March, 2021. Since 2015, a total of 85 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted, and 126 short-term drinking water advisories were lifted before becoming long term. We are well on our way to meeting our commitment. This will be aided through the 2019-20 main estimates by an additional $66.7 million proposed by budget 2019, which has been dedicated to keeping us on track. I am extremely proud of this, as all Canadians should have access to safe, clean and reliable drinking water.
We have made, and are continuing to make, important changes in the government's relationship with first nations, Inuit and Métis people. While there is still a lot of work to do, our government's historic investments are making a difference in closing the gaps that exist, and improving the quality of life for indigenous peoples.
I'd now be happy to answer any questions that the committee may have.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
You're going to have to forgive me, because I didn't get my translator on in time, and we've all borne witness to my attempts at French; my listening is not much better. I didn't catch all of it, but I think my deputy has it handy, so I'll let him speak.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you, Mr. Robillard.
I think most of the people on this committee, if not all of you—it was a big crowd—were in that room. It was a heavy day. We're committed to ending the ongoing national tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people. To end this national tragedy, we asked the commission to identify and examine the systemic causes of violence against indigenous women and girls. They have.
I think we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all the survivors and family members who shared their stories, because that is not easy, and some of them put their own health at risk in doing so, having to relive a lot of moments that many of them have buried. For that reason, as the Prime Minister noted in his speech, many chose not to speak. We honour them for that choice as well.
This is truly quite extraordinary; it hit me yesterday. This is a national inquiry, the first of its kind, and I was quite taken by the number of provincial governments that were represented and that accepted copies of the report. We have a lot of work to do. We are committed to a national action plan, as you heard the Prime Minister say yesterday, and that's called for by the inquiry to implement the recommendations to make sure they're distinctions-based; that they're flexible. As have all our efforts thus far, we know they must be developed in partnership with first nations, Inuit and Métis governments and organizations, the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and the survivors.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
As a formal part of the inquiry, I did not receive those testimonies, but I've received many testimonies in my travels from people who have been involved in very similar circumstances. They are deeply aggrieved; they feel deeply wronged. They feel the loss of a loved one. We have to get through this report meticulously, and we have to work quickly. We all understand that we only have so much time left in this session.
Some things we've worked on that are very much in keeping with the report, which, again, passed third reading last night and is an extraordinary piece of legislation because it was developed in partnership with indigenous peoples, I think will go a long way in the area of child and family services to finding solutions that indigenous people will develop themselves.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I don't think there's any question that we have a lot of work to do. I think some of those recommendations overlap with actions that our government is currently taking, so we have to read the report methodically.
We accept the recommendations in the report in their entirety, and now we have to decide what that national action plan will be. That will require a lot of vigorous work, I think, not only on the part of Minister Bennett's department and my department, but all departments, for the most part.
As you well know, I've said here before committee that every minister has in his or her mandate letter a commitment to reconciliation, and it is something that is going to require the efforts of the government.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you, Mr. Waugh, for your hope and optimism.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Of drinking water, yes.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
No, no. We are on track to make this happen. We're doubling down on our efforts.
I'll let Paul take the floor to give you some quick figures.
I've also been to, for instance, Piapot nation in northern Saskatchewan and Piapot had theirs burn down. We have a new temporary one that is up and running, with staff who are tremendously proud of the amount of training they've gone through and that they are able to provide the fixes that are needed to make sure that community.... I think there might be a notion that many of these communities are close together. Some of them, as you well know, out your way—it was an eye-opener for me—are quite spread out, so there's quite a bit of work involved.
At Piapot, they are very proud of the fact that they have that training on the ground. I then turned to this position, this belief—having seen it in other places—that you cannot simply build these things and walk away. If they are going to work, then you have to have people trained and on the ground and ready to make the fixes as they are needed. Also, a team of people provides meaningful employment.
The only way you're going to solve it on an ongoing basis is to make sure that there is training provided on the ground. That is already happening, and that was the commitment of the department.
Paul has some numbers.
You read them out, Paul.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
You're right to point out that it's a big challenge; it's huge.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you for the question, Ms. Ashton, and I would simply say that how you've characterized this is wholly untrue.
We have certainly done quite a bit. We came into government with 86,000 houses, that was our shortage. We have built or repaired 14,000 so far. That is not nothing; it is certainly not nothing to the people who live in those houses. Do we need to do better? Yes. Are we going as fast as we possibly can, given capacity issues? Yes.
It's $600 million over three years to first nations, so far—$600 million; $500 million, over 10 years, for Métis nation housing; $400 million over 10 years for Inuit-led housing. It's the largest investment in housing, I would venture to say, in federal government history. It will be ongoing.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I don't know if you do, though. Those are big numbers.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We will continue to build houses as fast as we can in partnership with nations, in partnership with Inuit and in partnership with Métis. We work with them on the ground to determine their needs. It was only, I think, last week that I was in Whitedog and walking through homes where there were five families in a three-bedroom house with the living room converted into another bedroom and two newborns less than one month old. There is no question that we have a significant challenge ahead of us.
We have increased our efforts at a level that the federal government has never seen. We will keep hard at it until we have provided adequate housing and proper housing to everyone who needs it.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We've done, I think, significant work in providing shelter and women's shelters on reserve across the country. We need to step up those efforts. I think we need to make sure that we never have situations again where indigenous women who are fleeing a bad place, an abusive house or—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Well, through new funding, we are enabling greater access to mental health supports, cultural supports and emotional supports for those survivors, for families, for those impacted. We saw that yesterday at the closing ceremony with individuals who wore purple shirts there assisting survivors, family members and attendees. They were there providing those supports to people who were present.
We remain committed to supporting survivors and their families as they seek answers. I mean, systemic institutional failures led to this tragedy.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I will quickly say that our government was the one who initiated this unprecedented national inquiry because we understood the importance of this national tragedy. We have a lot of work to do with provinces and territories to make sure that we have that response time available to families. I know that the RCMP is creating a special unit that responds to requests from the national inquiry on specific files.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Not that I'm aware of, no. Not even close.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Most definitely.
I'll leave it to these guys to maybe provide you with specific numbers. I can certainly say that it is amazing to me.
In the past number of months, when I've dealt with leadership, despite the significant challenges that they still face in their communities, their bands and their regions, they understand now and have confidence that this money is coming. They appreciate things like the 10-year grant, which I'm quite aggressive in promoting when I meet with leadership who have not yet applied. It allows them the ability to know about and plan for the next 10 years.
They are not having to reapply every year, and fill out paperwork for a program or something on an annual basis. I think there are enough people around this table who have worked for non-profits, or have worked in places where you are constantly reapplying for government funding.
The fact is that you have a limited pool of people in small communities who are doing this hard and meaningful work. If you can make sure that they spend more time concentrating on closing the gaps and making their communities more prosperous for all, instead of filling out paperwork needlessly, year after year, program by program, that is real. That is energy and time that they can now be dedicating toward the people, the quality of life of their people and the future prosperity of their people.
That is a very real and significant movement. Leadership now, knowing and feeling some assurance that our commitments are real, are feeling them on the ground. They are not where they need to get to yet, as the national chief keeps reminding me. He's quite right. This is not parity. Progress is not parity. We're not there yet.
They want to talk more about the issues of economic development. They're looking at wanting to become self-sufficient communities: “We do not want to be relying on government. We want to increase professional capacity within our communities. We want to be the ones doing the heavy lifting.”
It is really quite heartening to see that corner being turned by some leadership.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Prevention is part of the cure, yes, and that also speaks to the increased capacity that we've been able to develop on the ground, that these can be identified quickly and that we have the resources now. Again, the resources are not enough—otherwise we would have everything done by tomorrow, but this is simply not how it works—but we do have a much stronger capacity on the ground to address these things as they come.
Did you want to speak any further to that?
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We'll submit them to you, Ms. McLeod.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
In terms of our employees, I don't—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
It is. I'm just not entirely sure if it's with a particular individual that you're talking about, so let's submit that.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I wouldn't constitute it necessarily as a failure on anybody's part. I would simply say that we had a deal. I was on the phone with the chief the night before. We were speaking to him then. The deal was fairly detailed, as I had done with Kashechewan and Cat Lake. There is a lack of trust in many of these communities, so they need to know—and have every right to know—timelines for specific project developments and have them costed. When we spoke the night before we were in agreement on all of those issues. When I arrived in community, they had changed. That happens; it's a negotiation. I've been in this job now long enough to say that's just all part of negotiations.
But certainly, we went there with a deal. We expected to sign a deal. The community had a community feast ready to go. The chief and his support staff changed their minds. Based on those changes, we want to come up with a meaningful response, because I'm determined to get this done—for those who are living with the effects, we believe, of mercury poisoning, for people who are living apart from community. We want them back in community, where we feel they can be better, where they can be closer to their families. I'm determined to make that happen. If we had been able to have that deal done last week, shovels would be in the ground now. I was ready to move.
We'll have to keep hard at it. This is the nature of negotiation, but I'm determined to get it done.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
No. I'm not sure what the fine line is between the two, but certainly, that's what we were going for. We were talking about two different facilities, in fact.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Madam Chair, I take it as probably a very good indicator of how closely we've been working that I know them all only by their first names.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Ah, Gros-Louis. It's a revelation to me.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you, Madame Chair and colleagues, for the invitation to appear before the committee today to speak to these important and necessary changes to child and family services for first nations, Inuit and Métis people.
Allow me to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
Today my team and I are joined together and will be glad to answer questions shortly.
Protecting and promoting the well-being of indigenous children and families should be the foremost priority of the federal government and governments across Canada. However, that has not always been the case.
Every day in Canada, indigenous children are separated from their families, communities, languages and cultures. Too many indigenous children end up in care away from their communities. These already vulnerable children are forcibly taken from their homes without their parents' consent and all too often are deprived of their culture and identity, as well as the community supports that ensure their long-term well-being.
I think we can all agree that the current system does not work for indigenous children and families and that we cannot perpetuate the status quo in a child and family services system that has been rightly called a humanitarian crisis. Something is seriously wrong when indigenous children represent only 7.7% of all children under age 15 and yet make up 52% of children in care in this country.
Paternalistic policies keep these children isolated from the people they love. Too many young lives have been severely damaged and, in some cases, tragically lost.
This is precisely why Bill C-92 takes an entirely different approach. We have before us a bill that represents a set of national priorities that the government and indigenous groups worked on together, principles that put the child first; that enshrine the importance of culture, community, family and the well-being of that child; and that uphold the dignity of the family and of the child in any dealings with the child and family services system.
Our vision is of a system where indigenous peoples are in charge of their own child and family services, something we recognize should have been the case a long time ago.
Bill C-92 will finally put into law what indigenous peoples across the country have been asking of governments for decades: that their inherent jurisdiction be recognized and affirmed.
Should Bill C-92 be adopted, indigenous communities could exercise partial or full jurisdiction over child and family services. Because a one-size-fits-all approach does not work, it would be up to indigenous peoples to tailor the system to match the needs of their communities, and we are committed to working with individual communities to make sure those services are tailored to meet their needs.
The bill flows from an intensive period of engagement with first nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, communities and individuals, as well as the provinces and territories.
Since the emergency meeting convened by my predecessor in January 2018, there have been extensive meetings and consultations across the country in an effort to get this right. Even in the weeks preceding the introduction of this bill, we were incorporating the suggestions of indigenous groups and provincial and territorial partners.
For me, the truest sense of our efforts came from a statement by Senator Murray Sinclair that our approach “should serve as a model for implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Call-to-Actions in a meaningful and direct way.”
That doesn't mean the conversation starts there or stops there. There are no closed doors to our indigenous partners or the provinces and the territories. This bill and the children it aims to protect are only served if we collaborate and ensure their best interests.
Also, I am not suggesting that we've achieved perfection with this legislation. I am the first to admit there is still room for improvement, and I welcome this committee's input.
Bill C-92 is built on what indigenous peoples and child development experts have told us is required to protect children—to get them off to a good start in life. Under this act, indigenous child and family services will put the child first, consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This legislation sets out principles to ensure indigenous children and their families will be treated with dignity, and that their rights will be preserved. For instance, children could not be taken into care based on socio-economic conditions alone, as is often the case now. Instead of responding solely to crises, Bill C-92 prioritizes prevention. lt promotes things like prenatal care and support for parents. Both front-line workers and academics have told us that preventative care is the best predictor of child success and positive development. If circumstances dictate that interventions are needed, an indigenous child would only be apprehended when it is in the child's best interests, and priority would be given to placement with the child's own family or community, and with or near the child's siblings.
Under Bill C-92, when an indigenous group or community wishes to exercise their jurisdiction over child and family services and have their law prevail over federal, provincial and territorial laws, the Minister of lndigenous Services Canada and the government of each province and territory in which they are located will enter into three-way discussions around a coordination agreement. If an agreement is reached within 12 months following the request, the laws of the indigenous group or community would have force of law as federal law, and prevail over federal, provincial and territorial child and family services law. If no agreement is reached within 12 months, but reasonable efforts are made to do so, the indigenous law will also have force of law as federal law. ln practical terms this means that, should a government not act in good faith during the negotiation of a coordination agreement after 12 months of negotiations, indigenous child and family services law would have precedence over provincial law.
To promote a smooth transition and implementation of Bill C-92, Canada will explore the creation of distinctions-based transition governance structures. The co-developed governance structures would identify tools and processes to increase the capacity of communities as they assume responsibility over child and family services. We also know that funding needs to be part of the equation for this act to have maximum impact. We cannot presume that the funding models that have supported the current, broken system will be what indigenous groups want while exercising their jurisdiction. Those models and levels should be discussed and designed through the Bill C-92 coordination agreement process.
We pledge to work with partners to identify long-term needs and funding gaps. We are committed to strengthening the bill as it makes its way through Parliament. lt is essential that we work collaboratively and effectively to get this done. The necessity for this legislation goes well beyond partisan considerations—something I think we all understand and agree on. What matters is that at long last we are taking substantive action to overhaul the system, moving away from paternalistic policy failures of the past.
Bill C-92 is a concrete demonstration of our collective determination to forge a renewed relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples, one built on respect and the recognition and affirmation of rights. This proposed legislation is designed for a better future for indigenous children, for their families, and for the communities the bill promises to support and protect.
Ultimately, that is a better future for all of us, and for that, I hope I can count on your support.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We had some 65 different meetings and heard from some 2,000 people from right across the country about this, giving us an understanding of what exactly it will mean.
More often than not, it's met with disbelief. I spent quite a bit of time this week in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Their attitude toward the proposed legislation, Bill C-92, is mixed. It is fair to say—and I look at my colleague, Robert—that in Manitoba there seems to be a belief that we will not actually do this. Manitoba doesn't believe we will actually come forward with this legislation.
In British Columbia it's certainly been more forceful. It has helped us along. This is the legislation it has been waiting for. Many of the provinces have built up capacity on the ground where they were already looking at child and family services legislation within their communities, so they are anxious to have a national blanket that would protect them within federal law and that allow others to reach the same capacity as they have.
In other areas, where the provinces are more heavy-handed when it comes to youth and social services, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, there is greater trepidation about whether or not this is real and meaningful. We've spent most of our time assuring them that that is the case.
Manitoba, for instance, is introducing something called the bringing our children home act. We are encouraging legislation from the ground when it comes to child and family services. What we're pointing out to the provinces is that what we are proposing with Bill C-92 would work concurrently with what they want to develop on the ground. It is unique to their circumstances and fits nicely with what we want to do nationally.
Sometimes in dealing with a number of Cree women who are confronted with the idea of child and family services and taking them back to their communities, they have rightfully said, when they walked away, that they were walking away with more questions than they had had before. I saw that as a good sign. Those groups are about to develop their own child and family services based on the wants and needs and capabilities of their communities, and we are providing a shelter within the federal framework.
That is exciting, because it will be more effective. We have effectively doubled the amount of money for child and family services over the past two and a half years, somewhere up to $1.2 billion. It's a substantial amount of money, and it remains there. The difficulty is that 80% of the funding that we carry on through the provinces and through our agencies goes toward the “protective services”. That is an ironic term that basically refers to the security and everything that surrounds the abduction of a child. So 80% of the budget is about the abduction of the child and the associated costs, which are many.
There is a hope too that there will be more money freed up there, because the communities themselves.... We are hell-bent on making sure that we drastically reduce the number of children who are taken from their families and that, over time, we put an increased light on preventive care and prenatal care, so that we never again reach that position.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
It's not a word that I use easily, as my mother has been in similar situations as a nurse in the north where she had to forceably remove children from families.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
No, I'm saying—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm aware. I use the word “abduction” quite purposely because from the point of view of the family, that is what they see. With all due respect to my mother and her nursing colleagues, my motivation at the moment is the family, and what the family sees is an abduction.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
First and foremost, since I took this position, I'm determined to make sure that we help the individuals who have been affected, and not the agencies that sometimes represent them. I'm more interested in going to the individuals and not the agencies. This hasn't been done in a bit but I'm determined to do it.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
This is a bill that deals with jurisdictions, not funding. It deals with jurisdictions in a groundbreaking way that has never happened before—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
—such as the ITK and the Métis National Council and the Assembly of First Nations have worked with us. We followed their lead.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
It is not—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Georgina, with all due respect—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm not condescending to you.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I would wish that everybody at this table would stop condescending to them.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
The nations and the bands themselves will determine that on their own. They will determine it on their own—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
—separate from me, separate from you, separate from everyone at this table.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I don't want to presume what that system will look like. I don't want to make any patronizing assumptions of how this will go.
What we agreed upon were three fairly good principles, the first, of course, being for the child. The rights of the child are first and foremost.
Secondly—and this is a very important point—the traditions, the culture and the language of an indigenous child are essential to their health.
Thirdly, when dealing with the system, the child and the family caring for that child should be dealt with always with dignity.
For those of you who have had fairly good treatment when you've dealt with hospitals, those may seem fairly basic things. They are not to a lot of people who will be affected by this legislation.
Each one of them needs time to work through it. Those who determine that they're ready and would like to take this on now, that they've waited long enough....
Last week I had dinner with a group of Cree women and elders just outside of Winnipeg who did not want to involve the province whatsoever. They said, “Let's get it done now.” We had to convince them that some work needed to be done.
The bottom line is this: They have a year to enter into negotiations with the federal government and provincial government to help them build their own child and family services. A lot of that is based on making sure that a kid has access to all the right things, to the things that they know, their extended family, that in the eyes of the law they are legitimized, not that they need it, but that they're there and that they're empowered, and that communities get to develop their own way of dealing with situations, with dealing with children in care.
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Lib. (NL)
I would simply finalize this.
If after 12 months these coordination agreements are not dealt with in good faith, the legislation that has been developed by the indigenous groups will supersede provincial and federal law.
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Lib. (NL)
Yes, and I'd very much like to talk to him about the legislation with the leadership of our co-development partners: the Assembly of First Nations, the ITK and the MNC leadership that was present. Three fine people were present for some of the meetings. We were as accommodating as possible. He did not want me in the official meeting, because he didn't want them in the official meeting, so we tacked on an extra day. It was a good opportunity then for us to discuss it.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm very disappointed they wouldn't meet with me. I'll be blunt. This is what reconciliation looks like. They wrote it with me.
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Lib. (NL)
I have?
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Lib. (NL)
No, I'm not content with it, but there it is.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Continue negotiating—
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Lib. (NL)
—with the provinces that certainly want to.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
You can see where I'm coming from—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I flew in from Saskatoon. I went to a meeting a day early because they didn't want to have me at the official meeting. So I went to the unofficial meeting. Then they refused to put me on the minutes as having existed at the meeting, nor did they want to put on the minutes the existence of the three other organizations that were with me.
I don't take anything too personally in all of this. These are all the kinds of games that we play in the short term. In the long term, do I think we'll get there? Yes, I do believe we'll get there. I think that all provinces will come onside, because it just makes too much sense. There will be games played. That's fine. That's politics.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
To go back to the beginning of your question, I just counted back, and there were 22 engagements with provinces and territories in the summer and fall of 2018 on options for potential federal indigenous child and family services legislation. And 22 at the senior level, the deputy minister level, is—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Madam Chair, thank you. I am pleased to be here today as you acknowledge the traditional territory of the Algonquin people and to speak with members of this committee in my new capacity as Minister of Indigenous Services.
Joining me is Jean-François Tremblay, Deputy Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, and Paul Thoppil, who is our Chief Finances, Results and Delivery Officer.
Fundamental to our work as a government is our relationship with indigenous people. I recognize the important work this committee is doing to further their priorities across Canada. In particular, I want to thank you for your recent report on long-term care on reserve, and I look forward to responding to your findings.
As Minister of Indigenous Services, my job is to advance work that closes socioeconomic gaps and improves the quality of services for indigenous peoples, in partnership with them, and in a way that promotes self-determination.
My predecessor, who is now President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government, identified five interconnected priority areas where our joint work is needed. They are the following: keeping children and families together, quality education, improving health outcomes, reliable infrastructure and economic prosperity. At the centre of each of these priorities are real people: individuals, people, communities.
Much progress has been made in these areas and the work is, of course, ongoing. To that end, Indigenous Services Canada requires immediate funds to continue delivering on our mandate.
That is what the supplementary estimates (B) and the interim estimates are about. Today, I will briefly outline my department's supplementary estimates (B) for 2018-2019 and the interim estimates for 2019-2020 to address the funding requirements of the first quarter of the coming fiscal year. Then, we will be happy to take your questions.
The supplementary estimates (B) for Indigenous Services Canada reflect a net increase of $273.6 million. This brings the total appropriations for 2018-2019 to $11.7 billion.
The largest item requested by these estimates is $99.8 million for the emergency management assistance program. This is a critical appropriation in the supplementary estimates. In the past year alone, Canada has seen its share of floods, wildfires and severe storms, which have had grave impacts on a number of first nations. In fact, they have displaced more than 10,000 on-reserve residents in Canada.
Thanks to budget 2018 funding, we have been able to better respond, and reimburse communities faster for costs incurred due to emergency incidents. Indeed, this fiscal year, over 99% of evacuated people have been able to go back to their communities. We are working hard to get the others home as soon as we can.
Our government has also made historic investments to accelerate reforms to first nations child and family services. Budget 2016 provided $635 million over five years as a first step, and budget 2018 committed a further $1.4 billion in new funding over six years.
It is essential we put the safety and security of indigenous children at the forefront of what we do. There is a pressing need within indigenous communities to raise young people in their culture, in their language and in their communities with their families.
As such, the second item in these estimates is part of these investments to address funding gaps and support efforts to keep children and families together where it is in the best interests of the child. These funds are already at work, Madam Chair.
As you are aware, we put an item on notice this week. I look forward to introducing it in the House shortly. I am limited in what I can say about it until it is formally introduced in the House. What I can say is I look forward to talking with you and listening to each one of you in the very near future.
The next item I wish to bring to the committee's attention is $64.4 million towards advancing a new fiscal relationship with first nations.
This funding will support communities in developing governance and community-led planning pilot projects. It will also ensure that first nations are no longer required to pay for third party management.
A key element of this new fiscal relationship is a 10-year grant starting on April 1, 2019, for eligible first nations to deliver core services. Interest in this grant has been very high. We are working now with eligible first nations to finalize agreements for the April 1 entry into the grant.
The last item I will touch on in the supplementary estimates (B) is the $37.5 million in funding for first nations elementary and secondary education programs.
A new codeveloped funding approach for first nations kindergarten to grade 12 education takes effect April 1, 2019. This formula-based approach supports first nations' control of first nations education, and helps to ensure predictable funding that is more directly comparable to what students at provincial schools receive.
More concretely, this funding would mean real change for first nations kids. For example, thanks to budget 2016 funding for education programming, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne is taking Mohawk immersion learning to the next level. It implemented a new math program in Mohawk, which is aligned with the Ontario math curriculum. This means that children can now learn math in Mohawk in their immersion classrooms.
We will start to see more and more successes like this replicated throughout Canada by way of regional education agreements.
I will now turn to the interim estimates and will highlight some of those items.
The department's interim estimates will be approximately $7 billion. This funding would ensure that Indigenous Services Canada is able to carry out its activities in the first three months of the fiscal year, until the full main estimates are approved in June. Among other things, a timely appropriation of these funds would ensure that First Nations are able to take full advantage of the start of the construction season.
We know that healthy and safe homes are integral to creating healthy and safe communities. We also know, however, that indigenous people are more likely to experience poor housing conditions than the general population. According to Statistics Canada's 2016 census, 18.3% of indigenous people live in crowded dwellings.
With that in mind, we are making progress with the Assembly of First Nations on the codevelopment of a first nations housing and related infrastructure strategy. This will contribute to more sustainable and healthy first nations communities. With the AFN, we are also codeveloping a new operations and maintenance policy framework that will provide greater flexibility to first nations to manage their assets on reserve.
It is also why, among other things, the Government of Canada is working in partnership to address the serious housing needs of Cat Lake First Nation through immediate action and long-term planning.
We know that decades of neglect are challenging to reverse, but we will be working in partnership to achieve results for the people of Cat Lake First Nation and for all indigenous people in Canada.
I joined Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow last Thursday to sign an initial framework agreement that means a solid plan moving forward. This agreement includes $3.5 million to support 15 new housing units, as well as additional funding for demolition, site preparation and shipping of materials; $2.1 million to repair 21 existing units; $2 million for the delivery and installation of 10 portable housing units; and expediting the seven new units that are currently under way.
Chief Keewaykapow invited me to join the community, and I have gratefully accepted accepted his invitation.
Madam Chair and committee members, I urge you to support the appropriations requested in these estimates. The funding will enable us to continue to address the day-to-day realities in indigenous communities in a holistic way.
Thank you. Meegwetch.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I think it might have been my fourth or fifth day as minister that I attended the B.C. gathering of chiefs. That was an incredible eye-opener on the importance of emergency management assistance. Most of the questions that I took from the floor on that day were on exactly this, and for good reason. It involves their safety and their security.
We provide emergency management support to on-reserve indigenous communities through the emergency management assistance program for the four pillars of emergency management: prevention, mitigation, response and recovery. We reimburse first nations partners, provincial and territorial governments and other third party service providers like the Canadian Red Cross for any eligible costs incurred in the delivery of emergency management systems to first nations communities.
Supplementary estimates (B) includes $99.8 million to reimburse first nations and emergency management providers for on-reserve response and for recovery activities in 2018-19.
If you look at what's driven those costs, there's $16.58 million for flooding, $26.92 million for wildfire response, $1.86 million for response costs for other emergencies such as tornadoes, $8.88 million for long-term evacuation costs and $74.91 million for recovery costs for things like critical infrastructure that needs to be replaced as a result of a fire, for instance.
For the past four years, response and recovery costs have exceeded A-base funding of $29.3 million. Options to address this persistent funding shortfall are being explored right now. I expect, to be honest, that it's not going to get any better.
The funds being requested will ensure first nations communities receive funding at a level to address that response and to recover. They support the Government of Canada's commitment to deliver consistent and high-quality programs and services to first nations.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'll begin with some good news, which is that we just lifted our latest boil water advisory yesterday, which now brings us up to 80. This is something that we heard very clearly during the election campaign and since. It's something that Canadians can grasp onto for exactly the reasons that you cited, the idea of a community not having access to clean drinking water.
Our government right now, as I said, is on track for our goal to lift all long-term drinking water advisories in public systems on reserve by March 2021. We also know that the work doesn't end with the lifting of long-term advisories. We're providing some sustainable investments to prevent short-term advisories, to expand delivery systems and to build capacity of and retain local water operators, training people on the ground in the community and putting in place systems for regular monitoring and testing.
Decades of neglect are challenging to these reserves, but we are working in partnership to develop plans to meet their specific needs. A lot of work needs to be done, but so far the results are encouraging. As I said, 80 long-term drinking water advisories have been lifted so far, including that one yesterday in North Spirit Lake, Ontario. That one had been place for 17 years.
I visited one facility in Piapot in Saskatchewan. The women who run this particular facility have trained long and hard. They work long, hard hours. My God, are they proud of the work that they're doing and the fact that they're doing that work in community, and they're the ones doing it.
I have to say that the other thing that really struck me, and it was pointed out to me by the leadership, is, how spaced out many of these communities are. I think that, when we see images sometimes in the media, we see some communities that have houses that are in close proximity to one another, but a number of these communities have great distances between the houses, which makes dealing with their water needs more complex than meets the eye.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I believe, and I can be corrected by my deputy, the reason is that we give it six months.
Is that the time duration?
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Lib. (NL)
Frankly, Mr. Waugh, if it is the case that we give ourselves six months before we get it back on track, that should be spelled out there as well so that it's transparent.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Let me speak to the two examples that you brought up. In Piapot, I visited the interim water facility and it's really quite impressive. That is the interim one, and the women I met there were incredibly well trained and quite proud of that training. If they complained of anything, it was overwork. We need to get more people trained up so that they're not working the hours they are, which are pretty extensive.
They showed me the facility, the site that had burned down. We are committed to rebuilding that with them.
We're working with Carry the Kettle as well. I've spoken with them, or I should say, my officials have.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Yes.
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Lib. (NL)
No, that was an unfortunate tweet.
Georgina, what was it? It was a Beechcraft 1900, whose chairs are normally right on your knees. I had an official with me who got a new telephoto lens and put the seat down in front of me, so it looks as though I'm G5-ing it. However, I can tell you, it was absolutely not the case.
We were on a plane with elders, with members of the community, and if you don't mind my saying so, with the member of the committee here, Georgina Jolibois. This is a normal way for people in the north to travel. It's the most cost-efficient way when we're going from place to place.
I thought the view outside the window looked cool. It turned out to be an absolute disaster of a tweet, as they go. It in no way reflects the way we travel. It certainly in no way reflects our priorities. It's just a stupid old tweet.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
It would be in keeping with our departmental costs. You know, these things would be out there.
Honestly, Mr. Waugh, if you saw the plane it's something that you would see normally in northern Saskatchewan. A Beechcraft 1900 ain't sexy. There is not much legroom. It's just how we get back and forth. I can say, as a former baggage handler at Goose Bay International Airport in Labrador and flying around all over Labrador, this is—
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Lib. (NL)
—pretty typical stuff. I have to be honest with you, I'm used to a Twin Otter or a Beaver, so this is pretty high end for me.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Yes, because there were a number of people with us. It also looks like I'm alone. Most of the people were near the front of the plane because they knew the heat was better up there.
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Lib. (NL)
For the treatment and wellness centre there I think it was close to $10 million. It will affect tens of thousands of people in neighbouring communities. It was something that they had worked on for quite some time. Addictions are a huge problem out there. In fact, I could expand on this at a later point but we recognize it's a huge problem in many communities in the north. The people there got together and they have done exemplary work in finding programming in a facility that will meet their specific needs. It was an honour to be up there with them.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We can't just go about investing in housing and renovating homes on reserves without taking a holistic view from the viewpoint of the life cycle of the asset, the home and the kinds of homes that we specifically need in the north and indigenous communities. We are making a lot of progress with the AFN on the codevelopment of this first nations housing and related infrastructure strategy, the idea being that we listen to them. Through them, we listen to particular communities about their specific needs because the old way of doing it and one-size-fits-all didn't work. We all know that. Even if you look at Cat Lake, a number of the houses there were just planted there. We need to dig deeper into the standards that are required. Houses are going mouldy.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Temperature is constantly changing. There are are even small things.... When I sat down with the chief when I landed in Thunder Bay, one of the first things he mentioned, which was frankly quite obvious to anybody like me who grew up in the north, is storage. We're bringing all these materials up on the winter road and we're not storing them properly. As a result, things like lumber can go mouldy before we even build the house.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Please.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I agree. With Cat Lake, we sat down and we did the deal. It will involve 36 new housing units and 21 new renovations and repairs. We are assessing those units right now with the community to determine what's more cost efficient. It may be better in some cases.... We can do repairs and renovation where the damage is not that extensive, and in other ones we need to demolish the home and provide temporary housing in the 10 portable units we're bringing up there, and will leave there. These are things we have to work out with them.
We are limited, as you well know, by the winter road. Most people in Canada don't appreciate what a winter road is. The community I grew up in had a winter road most of the time. It has a full tough year-round road now—it's no longer seasonal—but you have a very short window in which you can get construction supplies up there. The latest update I had, yesterday, is that we still cannot get heavy equipment up. We're still getting light equipment up. In the next four days, we're expecting very cold weather up there. This is one of those cases where Canadians are praying for cold weather, because that will sustain the road and we will be able to get the portables up there. You can imagine how heavy they are and how hard they are on those roads.
That is essentially the challenge we are facing right now. We are ready, on one end, to get as many materials up there as quickly as we can. We are working with the province and the first nation. I spoke with Minister Rickford of the Ontario government yesterday. We are working with them to make sure we can get those supplies up there as quickly as possible.
Much of it is the circumstances of living in the north. The only way we can overcome them is by working closely with the community. I talk to local leadership there regularly.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I would simply add that you're absolutely right. That is why we are moving as quickly as we can, but we are also taking the time to listen and get it right. We are consulting extensively. When I'm in front of reporters, it's often, “Why can't you move faster?”, but at the same time, “Why aren't you consulting more extensively?”
It does take time to get it right. I know that's frustrating, but I think what I presented to you, and what you will see, are long-term solutions and long-term budgeting. We are also looking at long-term block grants to communities so that they don't spend so much time on the administration level. Many of these small communities only have so many people to fill out the paperwork and do the calculations. When they are constantly reapplying for the funding they rely upon, that is time and energy wasted, which could be used for better planning and for more forward thinking.
We are saying, “Let us find you a more financially sustainable model, so that you know where your money is coming from and you can spend more time getting it right.”
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I understand that the parliamentary secretary went there, as you said. It was noted that it was the first time a parliamentary secretary had been to the community, so I think that's terrific. As you said, there were two major infrastructure announcements in the community that were tremendously important—$1.1 million in those projects, and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake band council contributed an additional $300,000 to it. There's the brand new waste-water pumping station, a residence to house Kitiganik primary schoolteachers who come in from outside the community, and the connection to the grid.
There's a tremendous desire amongst the indigenous leadership I've met. This was the case with the Cat Lake leadership. There were a few things, as I said, they wanted added to the agreement we had been working on, once I saw them in person. One of the first things they mentioned was storage facilities to make sure the equipment and the materials we were bringing up were adequately protected from the elements.
There were a couple of other things that I think were very telling. First of all, they wanted somebody to come in, in a full-time position, to help them manage their new homes and to help them maintain them. The other thing they asked for, and I think it's tremendously important, was financial training. They wanted financial training for their chief, for their leadership, for their council members, and for their administration workers. There is a lot happening, and they want to handle these resources respectfully and responsibly. Of course we committed to all of that. There's a tremendous want and desire for that sort of training and to have that sort of responsibility and to deal with the new funding they are receiving, as I said, responsibly and respectfully.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I would add he's borne witness to a lot over the years and he's pleased, I think, with the work that is in progress.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'll let Paul begin, and then I'll finish.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm going to get into that, but if I could just use a minute of my time here to allow Paul or the deputy, perhaps, to finish the answer to the honourable member's question on what she termed the “slush fund”.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
To the larger question of capacity-building, not only is it the right thing to do in empowering communities, frankly it's financially the smarter thing to do, rather than coming somewhere, building something, and then leaving without the ability of local leadership to be able to work with it and maintain it. It checks off all the boxes.
It does require some upfront costs; that you take the time and the money. It does take a little longer to make sure you build up the capacity locally. The long-term benefit is tremendous, as you said you witnessed. The more we do this, the more we'll see savings down the road from our end.
The idea that came to me in the very early days of my job here is that I'm a minister who is working himself out of a job. The more we can devolve services at the local level, the better. The more we can build up that capacity on the ground to deliver services directly to indigenous members in their communities, by indigenous people in their communities, the better. It's better for us; it's better for them.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I'm going to ask Paul to take it.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We may get to that point, to be honest with you. I understand concerns here, but I have a number of other pressing priorities that are taking up my time at the moment.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I would say that we will continue to work with indigenous partners to make sure that we get the results we need, and that we will continue to strive to make sure that we achieve the transparency that they and their members demand.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I am not going to comment on that at the moment. It's just not, right now, one of my top priorities.
I think my priorities are very clear, and those are priorities that we have dealt with, in conjunction with our partners, to make sure that we achieve the results that we need—
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
I have an answer ready to give you, but out of the corner of my eye I can see the unbridled enthusiasm of my deputy, who seems very anxious to answer this specifically, so I'll throw it to him.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon to you and all the members of the committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear today to discuss the 2018-19 supplementary estimates.
At this midpoint in the fiscal year we are seeking a 1.2% increase in our funding. The majority of this is related to readying ourselves to implement the return of a lifelong pension, which I announced last December.
As you know, starting on April 1, 2019, veterans with service-related illness or injury will have the option of a tax-free monthly pension for life. As had been requested by our veterans and stakeholders, the pension for life includes recognition and compensation for the pain and suffering as a result of a service-related illness or injury.
I want to take a moment here to clear up a key misunderstanding. The new pain and suffering compensation under pension for life is not simply the former disability award split up on a monthly basis. It's not anywhere close, actually. When taken as a monthly benefit, the pain and suffering compensation offers up to a maximum of $1,150 per month for life. A seriously disabled 25-year-old veteran who lives to the age of 75 would stand to receive $690,000 in pain and suffering compensation alone, well above the current disability award of $360,000.
The pension for life program also includes additional compensation for the most seriously injured veterans and an income replacement of 90% of a veteran's pre-release salary for veterans who are in rehabilitation or who are permanently and severely disabled.
Regardless of the duration of their military career, all members of the Canadian Armed Forces will be released one day. Our job is to help them transition smoothly and successfully to life after military service. Our duty is also to commemorate and recognize the service of all military members.
It's important to remember that 93% of all Veterans Affairs' expenditures goes directly to programs and benefits for veterans and their families. This includes health and well-being benefits, transition to civilian life programs and supports for families.
On top of that, over the last three years we have significantly increased the support for veterans. For example, in 2017, the maximum disability award rose from $314,000 to $360,000, indexed to inflation. This alone meant approximately $700 million for more than 67,000 veterans who had already received a disability award.
You may note, actually, that there appears in this year's estimates a slight decrease over last year. This is due directly to the amount we disbursed in topping up veterans with $700 million in disability awards. Even if we hold that one-time payment off to one side, we are still providing more direct benefits to veterans than ever before.
We also increased the earnings loss benefit to 90% of a veteran's indexed salary at time of release, previously set at 75%.
We have also increased supports for families. On April 1 of this year we introduced the caregiver recognition benefit, a benefit that offers $1,000 a month tax free, indexed annually, which is paid directly to the person who cares for an injured veteran.
We also know that the transition from Canadian Armed Forces member to veteran must always include their families, so we have ensured access to the veteran family program at all 32 military family resource centres for veterans who release medically and their families. This helps them establish successfully in their new community while retaining their connection to the military community.
For members with complex needs—for example, those transitioning for medical reasons—a case manager will help coordinate transition planning with the Canadian Armed Forces, side by side with Veterans Affairs Canada. Case managers can also refer veterans and their families to a network of 4,000 mental health professionals. Veterans and family members can receive assistance through our 24-hour toll-free helpline, with access to psychological counselling and other services.
On top of that, for veterans with a service-related illness or injury, there is a range of physical and mental health services available to them. A network of 11 operational stress injury clinics and satellite service sites across the country delivers services where veterans need them.
We can also provide access to mental health services for a veteran's family member if it can be shown that it would help the veteran achieve their rehabilitation goals, but let me be clear—treatment benefits will not be provided by Veterans Affairs if that family member is under the care or custody of a federal institution or correctional facility.
For veterans looking for a career after their military service, we offer qualified career counsellors to advise about labour markets, help prepare resumés and give job search training. In some cases, they can help a veteran find a job.
We also offer veterans access to funding for tuition at colleges and universities or professional training. Those with at least six years of service can be eligible for up to $40,000. Veterans with more than 12 years of service can receive up to $80,000. Since April, when we introduced this education and training benefit, over 1,600 veterans have been approved to get the education and training they want to improve their post-service lives.
I'd also like to take a moment now to discuss the new veterans emergency fund. Established in April of this year, the fund allows Veterans Affairs to provide emergency financial support to veterans, their families and survivors whose well-being is at risk due to an urgent and unexpected situation. The emergency fund is intended to ensure short-term relief while we work to identify long-term needs and provide solutions through our other programs and benefits. To date we have spent over $600,000 to assist veterans and their families in emergency situations.
We also introduced the $3-million veteran well-being fund, because we know there is an incredible amount of community interest in supporting Canada's veterans. I recently announced that there were 21 recipients of this fund, which supports private, public or academic organizations in conducting research and implementing initiatives and projects that support the well-being of veterans and their families. These organizations are tackling complex issues, from veterans' homelessness and transitioning out of the military to mental health and physical rehabilitation.
Over the past year, I've hosted 45 town halls, roundtables and summits. I've met with many veterans, their families and their advocates across the country.
In particular, I met with over 65 organizations during a roundtable on homelessness in Ottawa in June and during the national stakeholder summit in Ottawa in October. Veterans Affairs Canada staff have also held more than 100 outreach activities across Canada.
As a result of this increased engagement, veterans and their families are more aware of the full range of benefits and services that they're eligible for. Over the past two years, we've seen a 32% increase in the number of applications for disability benefits.
We've been listening to veterans. We've heard what they have to say, and we're acting on what we have heard. One of the things that we heard about from veterans was the need to expand the medical expense tax credit to recognize the costs for psychiatric service dogs. Starting this tax year, they can now do that. We also funded a pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of using service dogs to assist veterans with PTSD.
Veterans also told us they want a tangible connection with the veteran community and a symbol of recognition of their service. We brought back the veteran's service card, now open to more veterans than ever before. We are increasing our capacity to deliver services. We reopened the nine field offices that had been closed. We opened a new one. We increased outreach and hired significantly more staff, including more case managers.
This year, we've invested an additional $42.8 million to eliminate the backlog of applications pending for over 16 weeks. We've just introduced a new wait time tool so that veterans can see the average processing time for programs and services.
Canadians value the contribution and sacrifice of veterans and all those who died in service to our country. That's why remembrance plays an important role in what we do. As Minister of Veterans Affairs, I've participated in significant and moving commemorations. We've marked important milestones, such as the centennial of the First World War and the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Over the next two years, we'll mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
View Seamus O'Regan Profile
Lib. (NL)
We have to do better. There's no question about it. Wait times are bigger. What's interesting, though, is that the number of actual veterans being processed is bigger as well. As I said in my opening statement, we've seen a 32% increase since 2015 in applications, and 60% of those, very interestingly, are for the first time. We know that many of these are veterans who, frankly, had given up on the system. They had given up on a culture that had consistently said no to them. Now it's a culture that more consistently says yes.
We have a large number of people who have come on board looking for services. As the general keeps reminding me, that is a good thing, and indeed it is, because it means that more people are putting up their hands and asking for help. The $42 million we got in the last budget is meant to help us play catch-up.
One of the significant problems we have—we are literally hiring people as fast as we possibly can through the system we have in the federal government—is finding the qualified people. It's easy to lose them. It's easy to fire them. It is far harder to gain them back. A lot of these people are in demand. They're bilingual and they have very specific training for the task. Hiring them back has taken more time than we had hoped.
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Lib. (NL)
It's not acceptable to this department. We continue to put more money and more resources into making sure that situations like that, sir, do not happen.
Walter, do you want to get into the minutiae of it?
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