The committee questions the minister about not supporting First Nations during climate emergencies
MPs on Monday accused Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu of being held accountable after the Auditor General criticized her department’s continued failure to help First Nations deal with climate emergencies.
Hajdu began the week with his top officials from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in Ottawa as it examines Auditor General Karen Hogan’s emergency management audit on the reserve for 2022.
Chronic problems identified nearly a decade ago remain unresolved, according to the audit, putting First Nations at increased risk of death and destruction from disasters such as wildfires and floods.
Hogan joined his predecessors late last year in denouncing “beyond unacceptable” the decades-long failure of Indigenous Services, formerly known as Indigenous Affairs, to effectively serve Indigenous peoples.
Hajdu responded by telling the committee that she accepts the audit’s findings and that her department is working on an action plan.
“We know we don’t have the luxury of time,” Hajdu said.
“The gap is huge and there is still a lot to do.”
Questions from MPs began with Conservative Kelly McCauley calling the audit “harmful” and the worst she had seen in the House of Commons in seven years.
“No one has been held accountable and no one is acting,” McCauley said.
“Who is responsible for this defeat?”
Hajdu will not give a straight answer.
“It’s all of us who are responsible,” she replied.
He then began attacking the Conservatives for voting against the previous Liberal budget, which increased spending on Indigenous programs, and blamed the Tories for years of inaction under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A 2013 audit of the same Harper-era program found that chronic underfunding, legal confusion, and systemic poor preparedness put First Nations at risk in emergencies.
Hogan echoed those findings, noting with concern that these problems persist among Trudeau’s liberals.
McCauley rejected Hajdu’s statement.
“It’s Harper’s fault, yes, it’s an outrageous answer, Secretary,” he said.
Department spends very little on prevention, mitigation
Hogan’s 2022 review found Indigenous services to be “reactive” and spending little on prevention and mitigation, and found a backlog of 112 approved but unauthorized infrastructure projects that could help.
Hogan told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Indigenous Peoples in November after the report was released, “concrete action is needed to address these long-standing issues.”
“Government must be accountable.”
Hajdu said the backlog has roughly halved, but declined to say how much money the department is spending on these “structural mitigation projects”. Joan Wilkinson, a senior assistant secretary of state, eventually said the department has $12 million annually for these projects.
NDP MP Blake Desjarlais, who hails from the Fishing Lake Métis settlement in Alberta, said the figure was embarrassing, called the audit “disgraceful” and called the partisan attacks shameful.
He said: “We should be ashamed. The government should be ashamed too. This is the life of the people, beyond politics, beyond partisanship.”
He told the minister: “This government is failing not only your government, but also the indigenous people. I take that point with me.”
“Governments in this country have failed the indigenous peoples.”
Hajdu’s testimony was underscored by a dire warning from the United Nations hours earlier, when an international group of scientists submitted its latest in a series of reports calling on world leaders to act now or face the climate catastrophe. was urged to take the risk
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that a “climate time bomb is ticking” and endangers humanity’s future when he presented the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, calling it a “human survival guide”.
Hajdu said it is clear that First Nations are on the front line of this crisis, which is bringing astronomical costs to evacuation, emergency housing and rebuilding communities and livelihoods.
She rejected claims that she was running from responsibility.
“I never said, ‘Never mind. Don’t look here.’ I am the first to say that we are still in a colonial system that oppresses indigenous peoples,” Hajdu told Desjarlais.
The minister said changing any “inefficient system” takes time, calling it a problem his department is taking seriously.