Reports of the Auditor General of Canada on Indigenous issues

Opening Statement to the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples

Reports of the Auditor General of Canada on Indigenous issues

23 November 2022

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

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss recent reports that we have presented to Parliament, as well as current and planned audits. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. Joining me today is Glenn Wheeler, Principal, who has been auditing Indigenous issues for more than a decade.

My office has audited issues of importance to Indigenous peoples for decades, and we have repeatedly raised the disparity in outcomes for Canada’s Indigenous peoples. For example, since 2015 alone, we have reported on health services, land claim supports, the reintegration of offenders into the community, employment programs, safe drinking water, and support to Indigenous communities during the COVID‑19 pandemic.

Just last week, we delivered to Parliament an audit report on emergency management in First Nations communities. Echoing our 2013 audit in this area, we concluded that Indigenous Services Canada had not provided these communities with the support they needed to manage emergencies such as floods and wildfires. These natural emergencies are happening more often and with greater intensity.

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 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. Despite our 2013 recommendation, the department still had not identified which First Nations communities most need support to increase their capacity to prepare for emergencies. Until the department shifts its focus to prevention and investing in infrastructure, communities are likely to continue experiencing greater effects from emergencies.

I would also like to draw the committee’s attention to 2 reports we presented in 2021. They focused on safe drinking water and health resources for First Nations communities during the COVID‑19 pandemic.

Reliable access to safe drinking water is a necessity of life. Yet, in many of the more than 600 First Nations communities in Canada, this is an ongoing challenge. Finding a sustainable solution so that Indigenous peoples in communities across the country have reliable access to safe drinking water is an important part of advancing reconciliation.

In 2015, the federal government committed to eliminating all long-term drinking water advisories on public water systems in First Nations reserves by 31 March 2021. Our audit was delivered as that deadline approached, 6 years after that commitment was made. We were disappointed to find that 60 of these long-term advisories remained in effect in 41 First Nations communities. Almost half of the advisories had been in effect for more than a decade. Some long-term advisories had been lifted as a result of interim measures, but the underlying deficiencies were unresolved, and long-term solutions were often years away.

We found that Indigenous Services Canada’s efforts had been constrained by an outdated policy and a 30‑year‑old funding formula for the operation and maintenance of public water systems. Until this formula is updated, it is unclear whether funding increases will be sufficient to meet the water infrastructure needs of First Nations communities.

In our other 2021 audit, we found that Indigenous Services Canada adapted quickly to respond to the additional health care needs of First Nations communities during the COVID‑19 pandemic. The department worked to expand access to both protective equipment, and nurses and paramedics. On average, communities received shipments of equipment within 10 days of requesting it from the department. Although Indigenous Services Canada was unable to meet more than half of the requests for extra contract nurses and paramedics needed to respond to COVID‑19, overall, the department’s support helped Indigenous communities and organizations respond to the pandemic.

Last week, I provided Parliament with a report on chronic homelessness. That audit showed that the government did not know whether efforts and investments made so far have improved housing outcomes for people and vulnerable groups experiencing homelessness or chronic homelessness. To me, this reinforces the importance of addressing the housing needs of all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples. We are in the early stages of planning an audit that will focus on the housing needs of First Nations, an area that we last examined in 2003.

My office is also the legislative auditor for Canada’s 3 northern territories. We report regularly to each legislative assembly. Our territorial audits often focus on programs that affect Indigenous peoples. For example, in 2021 and 2022, we examined corrections in Nunavut, addictions prevention and recovery services in the Northwest Territories, and housing and mental health services in Yukon. Next year, we will be presenting a report on the important topic of child and family services to the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut.

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.

My office will continue to audit these issues because they matter. We are currently working to identify areas where our audits will bring the greatest value for parliamentarians. We look forward to working with this committee.

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