Emergency Management in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada

Opening Statement before the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs

Emergency Management in First Nations Communities—Indigenous Services Canada

(Report 8—2022 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)

28 November 2022

Karen Hogan, Fellow Chartered Professional AccountantFCPA, Fellow Chartered AccountantFCA
Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on emergency management in First Nations communities, which was tabled in the House of Commons on 15 November 2022. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. Joining me today are Glenn Wheeler and Doreen Deveen, who led this audit.

Emergencies such as floods and wildfires are happening more often and with greater intensity across Canada. These emergencies disproportionately affect many First Nations communities because of their relative remoteness and socio‑economic circumstances. Over the last 13 years, more than 1,300 emergencies have occurred in First Nations communities, causing more than 130,000 people to be evacuated and displaced.

Echoing our 2013 audit in this area, we concluded that Indigenous Services Canada had not provided First Nations communities with the support they needed to manage natural emergencies.

Over the last 4 years, the department has spent about $828 million on emergency management for First Nations communities. We found that the department’s actions were more reactive than preventative. Although First Nations communities had identified many infrastructure projects to mitigate the impact of emergencies, the department had a backlog of 112 of these projects that it had approved but not funded.

Indigenous Services Canada was spending 3.5 times more money on responding to and recovering from emergencies than on supporting communities to prepare for and mitigate impacts. According to Public Safety Canada, for every $1 invested in preparedness and mitigation, $6 can be saved in emergency response and recovery costs.

Despite our 2013 recommendation, Indigenous Services Canada still had not identified which First Nations communities most needed support to increase their capacity to prepare for emergencies. If the department identified these communities, it could target investments accordingly.

For example, building culverts and dikes to prevent seasonal floods would help minimize the impact on people and reduce the cost of responding to and recovering from emergencies. Until the department shifts its focus to prevention and invests in infrastructure, communities are likely to continue experiencing greater effects from emergencies.

We also found that capacity needs of First Nations were not identified. For example, although the department provided funding to First Nations for about 190 full‑time or part-time emergency management coordinators, it did not know how many more were needed for First Nations to have the capacity to manage emergencies.

Since 2009, 268 communities have been evacuated, some more than once. While the majority of these evacuations lasted less than a month, 90 were more than 3 months long, and some lasted multiple years. One has been ongoing for over 10 years.

Indigenous Services Canada did not ensure that emergency services were culturally appropriate and comparable to services provided in municipalities of similar size and circumstances. The department did not define comparable services. It also did not consistently monitor the services provided to First Nations communities by provinces and other service providers.

In 2011, at the end of her mandate as Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser summed up her impression of the government’s actions after 10 years of audits and related recommendations on First Nations issues with the word “unacceptable.” Five years later, my predecessor, Michael Ferguson, used the words “beyond unacceptable.” We are now into decades of audits of programs and government commitments that have repeatedly failed to effectively serve Canada’s Indigenous peoples. It is clear to me that strong words are not driving change—concrete actions are needed to address these long-standing issues, and government needs to be held accountable.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We are pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.