Nishnawabe Aski Grand Chief Harvey Yesno says the revelation that Indian And Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has withheld more than $1 billion in social services funding from First Nations over the last five years sends the wrong message to First Nations as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa concludes in June. “It is very discouraging that just days after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for more resources to help survivors, families, and communities recover from the abuse inflicted through the Indian residential school system, it now appears the government is withholding massive amounts of funding that should be spent on much-needed services,” said the NAN grand chief, a residential school survivor who attended the ceremonial events in Ottawa. “With the conclusion of the TRC, First Nations are looking for the federal government to move from apology to action by addressing the multi-generational impacts of the Indian residential school system. It is difficult to accept that this government is committed to reconciliation when it is withholding so much funding.”
That significant level of “lapse spending” (money promised, but never spent) places INAC among the largest “serial offenders,” meaning key departments regularly spend less than the amount budgeted in big dollar amounts year after year. CBC news obtained a heavily censored analysis of lapsing behavior from the Privy Council Office, the prime minister’s department, under the Access to Information Act. Other serial lapsers, including National Defense, made the Privy Council Office’s “top seven” list by failing to spend all their budgeted money for infrastructure and procurement, while INAC stands out as the only social service department regularly falling significantly short of budget. Other social-service departments have made the headlines recently for significant dollar shortfalls in promised spending, including Veteran Affairs, which has underspent by $1 billion over a decade, and Employment and Social Development Canada, which lapsed almost $100 million in 2013-14 alone.
A spokesperson for INAC says most of the lapsed funds are “carried forward” to be used in coming years. “From 2009-10 until 2013-14, 97.2% of what was marked as lapsed funding in the public accounts has actually been carried forward to future years and spent on a wide range of programs,” said Valerie Hache in an email that didn’t include any accounting of rollovers. “The reprofiling is simply due to timing issues that are common in complex negotiations where a number of parties are involved.” The Privy Council analysis concludes that in future years “the existence of a lapse in the 5% range is likely to persist” across all of government. “Such a result should not be seen as problematic.”
Aboriginal Affairs critic, New Democrat MP Niki Ashton, said the repeated underspending of millions of dollars is “unconscionable” given the appalling living conditions on reserves today. “This government chose, in silence, to repocket [unspent funds] instead of spending it on people who do not just need it but people for whom they have a fiduciary obligation,” said Ashton in an interview.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission wants additional resources to help survivors of residential schools recover from the decades of horrific abuse at the hands of church and government workers, and heal the hurt that has continued to damage families for generations. The Harper Tory government has made no concrete commitments. INAC’s planned budget is expected to decrease by a billion dollars (to $7 billion) for 2017-18, according to the department’s spring fiscal blueprint.
NAN’s 49 First Nations, especially remote communities, continue to suffer from insufficient infrastructure, housing, health care, and education. In February this year, Health Canada reported that 139 Drinking Water Advisories are in effect in 92 First Nations communities. Thirty-five of these are in NAN First Nations. In a 2015 spring report, the Auditor General of Canada found that Ottawa is not providing adequate access to health care services for First Nations people in remote communities.
NAN also wants to see changes in the federal Nutrition North food subsidy program. Currently only eight of NAN’s 32 remote communities receive the full subsidy, while seven receive a partial subsidy. “The government of Canada has a historic opportunity for nation-wide reconciliation with First Nations, but a sincere commitment backed by action will be needed if we are ever going to repair this relationship,” said Grand Chief Yesno.