Federal response to AG report on First Nations emergency preparedness ‘a start,’ but not enough, says AFN regional chief

Monday, December 9, 2013
The Hill Times

Opposition says auditor general’s latest findings call into question the government’s fiscal management.

The federal government’s plans to improve emergency management on First Nations reserves is “a start,” but it doesn’t go far enough to address the serious gaps identified in the latest auditor general’s report, says a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that the federal government spent nearly $450-million on on-reserve emergency management activities between 2009 and 2013, but Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development’s annual budget for emergency management is only $19-million.

The shortfall in emergency funding means that Aboriginal Affairs has had to reallocate funding for community projects to deal with emergencies like flooding and forest fires, with additional funding coming from Treasury Board reserves.

“According to [AANDC] Department officials, the capital program is also underfunded to meet its needs, and reallocations result in delays or cancellation of community infrastructure projects,” the report states. “The Department knows that the program’s annual budget of about $19-million is not sufficient and it has had to fund the program by reallocating money from other sources.”

Not only has on-reserve emergency response planning been seriously underfunded, but it’s also been lopsided. Of the $286-million that Aboriginal Affairs directly spent on emergency response over the four-year period, 63 per cent, or $180-million, was spent on responding to emergencies. Only one per cent, or $4-million, was spent on prevention and mitigation. Another $34-million was spent on emergency preparedness and $68-million on fire response.

“[T]he Department had not carried out a cost/benefit analysis of investments in emergency prevention and mitigation activities on reserves,” the report stated. 

Aboriginal Affairs isn’t the only department with a hand in overseeing the response to on-reserve emergencies. Health Canada is responsible for responding to on-reserve pandemics. While Health Canada claimed that 98 per cent of reserves have pandemic plans in place, the Auditor General’s Office was unable to confirm the figure. The AG found that there were only 69 pandemic plans in place covering 148 First Nations communities.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt (Madawaska-Restigouche, N.B.) announced an overhaul of his department’s emergency management process on Nov. 19—one week ahead of the AG’s damning report.

Mr. Valcourt announced that the federal government would establish a “single-window” for First Nations to receive coverage for emergency costs, and invest $19.1-million to negotiate and implement new agreements with the provinces and territories to develop emergency management plans on First Nation communities.

The government also pledged to revise the Emergency Management Assistance Program to improve clarity around expense eligibility.

AFN Alberta Regional Chief Alexis told The Hill Times that he was not surprised by the auditor general’s latest findings. He welcomed the announcement by Mr. Valcourt, but said that the government had again neglected to consult directly with First Nations to develop the emergency management plan.

“It is a start and it is embraced… but unfortunately, again, there was a lack of consultation with First Nations. That should have been standard practice,” Chief Alexis said.

He said that the $19.1-million funding announcement was not enough of an investment to address the needs of 634 First Nations communities across the country. The latest AG report estimated that 450,000 First Nations Canadians live on reserve—nearly half of the national First Nations population.

Chief Alexis also raised concerns that the plan doesn’t go far enough in removing the bureaucratic red tape that exists between Ottawa and First Nations bands. The current system still requires funding transfers to pass from AANDC to provincial and territorial governments, then to AANDC local divisions, and finally to First Nations communities.

“If First Nations are involved at the front end, you can move to directly assisting the First Nation. That is something certainly that should be considered as [the government] continues, I would suggest, to re-evaluate and develop this policy,” he said.  “Money should be rolled out right to the First Nations so that we begin the mechanisms of emergency preparedness.”

A spokesperson for Mr. Valcourt said that the new system would eliminate red tape by establishing the “single-window” for First Nations to access emergency funding.

“AANDC’s policy framework is not being changed, so a formal consultation process is not planned,” Erica Meekes, the minister’s press secretary, stated in an email. “As bilateral agreements for emergency management on-reserve are improved or negotiated with provinces and territories, AANDC will engage with First Nations representative organizations as appropriate. On a national level, AANDC continues to work with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).”

NDP MP Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan, B.C.), her party’s critic for aboriginal affairs, said that the AG report raises questions about the Conservatives’ fiscal management.

“Maybe they should look at saving taxpayers’ money by investing in prevention and mitigation, by making sure adequate emergency plans are in place,” she told The Hill Times. “[T]hey continuously deal with emergencies but they don’t deal with the underlying issues.”

Liberal MP and aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul’s, Ont.) suggested that government itself be put under third party management.

In the midst of Idle No More protests last January, Aboriginal Affairs had placed the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario under third-party management following the release of an external audit that highlighted questionable bookkeeping by the band council.

Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency last month after a fire in a housing complex displaced 80 residents of the community. More than 60 residents are currently being housed in hotels in Kapuskasing, Ont. The community gained international attention in 2011 after footage of impoverished living conditions on the reserve went viral.

“Why doesn’t the Department [of Aboriginal Affairs] have a look at itself and its ongoing mismanagement on each of these files?” Ms. Bennett said. “It continues to be reactive instead of preventative… There doesn’t seem to be an investment in making sure these things don’t happen again.”

The auditor general flagged serious concerns in a number of other areas of public safety in the fall 2013 report. Mr. Ferguson’s office found that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s management of food recalls like last year’s recall of products from the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., was poorly coordinated and documented.

The report also found significant human resources shortages at Transport Canada, where only a quarter of required safety audits had been completed over three years. The AG found that Transport Canada’s inspectors were poorly trained and there was inadequate follow-up on safety audit findings.

The AG’s report also found that the Canadian Border Services Agency did not have enough information or exercise enough due diligence to properly monitor the border.

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