Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts – Programs for First Nations on Reserves
19 October 2011
John Wiersema, FCA
Interim Auditor General of Canada
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss Chapter 4 of the 2011 Status Report—Programs for First Nations on Reserves. With me today are Ronnie Campbell, Assistant Auditor General, and Frank Barrett, Principal, who were responsible for the audit.
Over the past 10 years, the Office of the Auditor General has audited a broad range of services and federal activities affecting First Nations. In this follow-up audit, we examined the government’s progress toward achieving the commitments it made to address significant observations and recommendations from seven of those reports, issued between 2002 and 2008. We focused on the areas of• education,
• water quality,
• child and family services,
• land claim agreements, and
• reporting requirements.
We noted in our follow-up that some progress was made in implementing some of our recommendations. Overall, however, we concluded that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and Health Canada have not made satisfactory progress in implementing our recommendations. In some cases, conditions have worsened since our earlier audits. For example:
• the education gap has widened;
• the shortage of adequate housing on reserves has become more acute;
• the presence of mould on reserves remains a serious problem; and
• administrative reporting requirements have become more onerous.
Mr. Chair, although departments have made efforts to implement our recommendations, the results have not led to significant improvements. This situation has led us to consider some of the causes that have inhibited progress on these issues.
In a preface to the audit, we identified four structural impediments that we believe severely limit the delivery of public services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living conditions on reserves.
The first impediment is a lack of clarity about service levels. The federal government, mainly through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, supports services such as education and drinking water on reserves that are provided by provincial and municipal governments off reserves. It is not always clear what the federal government is aiming to achieve, because it does not define what type or level of service it is committed to supporting.
The second impediment is the lack of a legislative base. Programs delivered on reserves are often designed and delivered based on federal departmental policies. Unlike provincial programs, there is no legislation supporting programs on reserves in such key areas as education, health, and safe drinking water. As a result, the services delivered through these programs on reserves do not always have well-defined roles and responsibilities, eligibility criteria, and other important program elements. There is also often a lack of clarity about federal responsibility for funding these services.
Mr. Chair, a third impediment that we identified is the lack of an appropriate funding mechanism. The federal government uses contribution agreements to fund the delivery of core programs on First Nations reserves. Our audit found that many contribution agreements must be renewed yearly, which can cause disruptions and uncertainty for First Nations in their ability to provide core services to their members.
With contribution agreements, the federal government does not necessarily accept responsibility for meeting any targets or goals, or for making progress. Contribution agreements often focus on activities rather than on results and may not include service standards. As a result, it is often unclear who is accountable to First Nations members when it comes to improving outcomes or achieving specific levels of service.
The fourth and last impediment I would like to discuss is the lack of organizations to support local service delivery. There are often no organizations—such as school boards, health services boards, and social service organizations—in place to support local delivery of programs and services. In contrast, provinces have established such organizations. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada has started to work with groups that represent more than one First Nation, but much remains to be done.
Mr. Chair, change is needed if First Nations are to experience more meaningful outcomes from the services they receive. In our opinion, real improvement in the living conditions on First Nations reserves will depend on many factors. These factors include addressing the structural impediments we identified in the preface to our chapter.
The federal government cannot put all of these structural changes in place by itself. Federal officials must work with First Nations, who themselves would have to play an important role in bringing about the needed changes.
We also recognize that the change required will not happen overnight. Solutions will take many years to fully implement. And they will have to involve many parts of government and include political leadership and the will to make the necessary changes to policies and legislation.
This Committee may wish to ask for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s views on the structural impediments as well as what the government would need to change, including political direction, policies, and legislative reforms in order to bring about the changes needed.
I should note that our audit was substantially completed on November 1, 2010. We did not audit actions taken since then.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer the Committee’s questions.
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