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'Reactive' Indigenous Services failing to help First Nations manage emergencies, says auditor general

Auditor General Karen Hogan leaves after speaking at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday.  (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press - image credit)
Auditor General Karen Hogan leaves after speaking at a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press - image credit)

Indigenous Services Canada is putting First Nations communities at risk by failing to provide them with the support needed to adequately manage emergencies wrought by increasingly common extreme weather events, the federal auditor general says.

Karen Hogan released a review of Ottawa's on-reserve emergency management efforts on Tuesday, which says chronic problems identified in a similar audit nearly a decade ago remain unaddressed.

"We found that the department's actions were more reactive than preventative, despite First Nations communities identifying many infrastructure projects to mitigate the impact of emergencies," the audit says.

"The department had a backlog of 112 of these infrastructure projects that it had determined were eligible but that it had not funded. The department is also spending 3.5 times more money on responding to and recovering from emergencies than on supporting the communities to prevent or prepare for them."

First Nations are responsible for local-level emergency-preparedness initiatives, but Indigenous Services is ultimately  responsible for ensuring First Nations receive adequate services including planning, prevention, mitigation, response and remediation, the audit says.

CBC
CBC

The department doesn't provide these services directly and instead negotiates with provinces or third-party providers to download that responsibility, resulting in jurisdictional confusion, chronic underfunding and systemic lack of planning and preparedness, the audit indicates.

"This audit is important because emergencies have significant health, environmental, and economic effects on the people affected, ranging from psychosocial trauma to lost economic opportunities," the report says.

"Once emergencies and evacuations are over, their effects continue to be felt by communities because it can take years to fully restore services and infrastructure."

2013 report also found problems

The auditor general is an officer of Parliament tasked with auditing operations of the federal and territorial governments and providing them with non-partisan advice about the use of public money. The office has long made critical findings when auditing programs delivered to First Nations.

Hogan's 2021 audit of Ottawa's efforts to supply First Nations with potable water, for example, found these efforts were inadequate and that Indigenous Services was not on track to meet its self-imposed deadline to lift all long-term water advisories on reserves.

The office reviewed the federal government's approach to on-reserve emergency management in fall 2013. It found underfunding, jurisdictional questions and ill preparedness were exacerbating First Nations communities' pre-existing vulnerability to emergencies and disasters even then.

That report found Ottawa spent $448 million supporting on-reserve emergency management in three fiscal years. However, Aboriginal Affairs, as the department was then known, had a yearly operating budget of only $19 million for emergency management.

This meant the department had to re-allocate cash from other revenue sources to respond to just about any emergency and had little money on hand to use for prevention services.

Hogan's latest review says "for every $1 invested in preparedness and mitigation, $6 can be saved in emergency response and recovery costs," meaning the lack of preventative cash is costing more in the long run.

The audit says Indigenous Services spent about $828 million on emergency management in the last four fiscal years.

Despite the increase, the auditor general says the department is still failing to properly identify high-risk communities in order to target them with investments for prevention and mitigation measures.

She says the audit also found the department did not know whether First Nations communities received services that were culturally appropriate and comparable to those provided to similar non‑Indigenous communities, such as nearby municipalities.

"Funding and building approved infrastructure projects, such as culverts and dikes to prevent seasonal floods, would help minimize the impact on people and the cost of responding to and recovering from emergencies," Hogan said in a news release.

Department accepts findings

Speaking with reporters outside the House of Commons in Ottawa, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said paying for response efforts rather than prevention leads to "astronomical" costs, pointing to catastrophic instances of flooding and fires in British Columbia and Manitoba.

She said she accepts the auditor general's recommendations and wants to move away from the reactionary model, but didn't explain why the department has failed to address issues the auditor general first raised nine years ago.

"We fully agree with the auditor general's report. I think that what it says to the government of Canada is that this work has to happen more quickly," Hajdu said.

"We're hoping to get some momentum with provinces, understanding that this really is going to be an all-hands-on-deck sort of shift from reaction only in rare circumstances to the prevention and adaptation that's going to be required."

Critics like the NDP's Niki Ashton say the report highlights the "ongoing inaction" of the federal Liberals, who have now been in power since 2015.

"The Liberals continue to abandon First Nations to fend for themselves in the face of a deadly climate crisis," said Ashton, member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba and NDP deputy critic for northern affairs, in a statement.

"First Nations know what they need to do to manage emergencies in their communities and on their territories and what needs to be done to save lives. But the Liberals aren't giving them the support they need."