Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Welcome, minister.
Last year, $900 million was left unspent by your department, at a time where there remains an urgent need for schools, new drinking water systems and especially mental health services to help address the suicide epidemic amongst Aboriginal youth across Canada.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, INAC, seems to have a consistent history of pulling back money from their budget instead of spending it to support Aboriginal communities that are in dire need of support.
Two weeks ago, a confidential Privy Council report card gave INAC an incomplete mark, citing bureaucratic lethargy. According to the National Post, INAC "is widely seen as one of the most sclerotic bureaucracies in the federal government," and this grade does nothing but reaffirm what indigenous leaders and political staffers who deal with the department have been saying year in and year out for decades.
All of this comes after Auditor General Michael Ferguson's biting criticism of your department in November of last year stating that:
This is now more than a decade's worth of audits showing that programs have failed to effectively serve Canada's Indigenous peoples.
My question to you, honourable minister, is this: Why is your department consistently not spending its allocated budget, leaving desperate First Nations communities in dire need of resources and assistance?
Hon. Carolyn Bennett, P.C., M.P., Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs: Thank you very much. As you know, senator, I was the critic of this department for four years and those were definitely my concerns and observations.
On the $900 million, I'm pleased to tell you that that money is ring-fenced for settling specific claims and residential school claims. That money has to sit there such that as soon as a claim is settled, the money flows to the claimant. That money is not available for the kinds of needs that you have identified.
I also want to tell you that far from sclerotic, I am so inspired every day by the people working in my department, the almost 30 per cent indigenous members of my department who are energized in knowing that they can make a difference in the way forward towards reconciliation in terms of righting these historic wrongs and also closing the gaps on outcomes.
You've identified a very important point, and I think this is the reason that the Prime Minister keeps all of us as ministers on a very short leash. We need to report into him on results that we're getting. I must say from my department, I have to prepare those reports very regularly and it is inspiring when we see how much money is out the door and how many kids are in new schools. These kinds of metrics matter. We are watching this carefully and are very inspired by the results this year.
Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: INAC has about 4,000 to 5,000 employees, and it is widely believed that within that department there is a repulsive policy of rewarding staff with bonuses for cutting back funds to First Nations. Is that true? If so, has that policy been terminated?
Hon. Carolyn Bennett, P.C., M.P., Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs: Senator, I have no awareness of that kind of policy. Our aspiration for the department is about getting results. We know we can only get results when we work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis on their priorities and being able to invest in the things that matter to them, and also us being accountable for the results we're getting with the money spent.
I again reiterate the 30 per cent of our department — and we are aiming to get it to 50 per cent indigenous public servants in our department — that are very much interested in getting positive results, closing those gaps as we go forward on this path on reconciliation.