Canada fails First Nations

Call them the lost decades... despite repeated warnings – and countless government reports – native communities are no further ahead


Our First Nations problem: A reality check

A made-in-Ottawa housing crisis

The public perception is that the federal government has turned over millions to build housing on native reserves. In fact, the feds maintain that they are not responsible for housing in First Nations communities, though the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) provide some funding. The harsh truth is that there’s a significant shortage of housing on reserves: some 8,500 units at AANDC’s last count almost a decade ago. Funding has failed to keep up with growing demand since then. To make matters worse, much of the housing built on reserves dates back to the 1970s and 80s and is of substandard quality, constructed with little regard for building codes or harsh weather. The auditor general reported in 2003 that 44 per cent of the existing 89,000 housing units on reserves required “major” renovations. The poor conditions have resulted in widespread mould contamination, which has led to serious health side effects. But no direct action has been taken by the feds to deal with the problem, aside from awareness programs.

Water posing health risks

Unlike the rest of us, native people living on reserves lack access to clean running water. There are still no legislated standards for drinking water on reserves, which means none can be enforced – this even though AANDC reports that more than half of all drinking water systems on reserves “pose a significant risk” to the health of residents. A water quality monitoring program was put in place in 2005, but there’s no regular water testing. A review carried out by the auditor general in 2011 revealed that tests were being done only 40 per cent of the time.

The widening education gap

Graduation rates among First Nations kids are the lowest of any group in the land. Despite efforts to improve the situation – AANDC drafted an action plan in 2004 – the education gap between First Nations youth living on reserves and young people living in the rest of Canada is actually widening. Less than half, 41 per cent, of all First Nations children graduate high school, compared to 77 per cent in the rest of Canada. The scary part: AANDC hasn’t actually assessed what the education needs are on reserves. The department is still using a formula dating back to the 80s to fund First Nations schools.

Children are being left behind

First Nations children are eight times more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in the care of the state than non-native kids. A simple equation here: federal government neglect = family breakdown. As with First Nations education, AANDC is flying blind on this file, borrowing from other programs to meet its financial obligations in this area. The treasury board has increased AANDC’s annual funding for child and family services by 32 per cent to $550 million in 2009-10. A good thing, but also a reflection of how starved the system has been. A 74 per cent increase in the budget of child and family services would be needed to keep up with demand, according to one government estimate.

Broken promises on land claims agreements

Signing land claims agreements is one thing. Implementing them is another. The feds haven’t always cooperated when it comes to fulfilling treaty obligations, especially when they involve use of land and resources. The spirit and intent of land claims agreements don’t seem to be the overarching considerations when it comes to implementation. Beyond basic obligations, the feds have set no larger objectives, such as reducing rampant unemployment on reserves, for example. Now the feds want to go a step further with Bill C-45 to make the exploitation of reserve land easier.

The illusion of native self-determination

It’s a myth that there’s any mystery about what happens to the tax dollars sent to First Nations bands. On the contrary, the feds have strict reporting requirements when it comes to the spending of federal dollars by band councils. The federal ministries dealing with First Nations receive an average of 168 reports annually from each reserve detailing spending. In 2006, AANDC received more than 60,000 reports from the 600 First Nations communities across Canada, many of them “unnecessary,” according to the auditor general. Most of those communities are too small (fewer than 500 residents) to maintain the administration to meet these reporting deadlines, resulting in funding delays that force reserves to borrow money from other sources. The onerous reporting requirements are sucking up time, money and effort that should be directed elsewhere. As if there aren’t enough issues.

Required reading: 2011 Status Report Of The Auditor General Of Canada To The House Of Commons 2006 Report Of The Auditor General Of Canada The Community Well-Being Index: Review Of Trends For First Nation Communities (2012) Royal Commission On Aboriginal People At 10 Years: A Report Card.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | twitter.com/enzodimatteo

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