The Conservative government got something of a tongue-lashing as the country’s auditor-general of 10 years, Sheila Fraser, delivered a no-nonsense series of interviews on her way out at the end of May.
Having conducted at least 31 audits related to First Nations issues ranging from education to water quality to family services, she has had a close-up view of the distinct lack of progress. And she made no secret of her frustration in her parting communications.
“Too many First Nations people still lack what most other Canadians take for granted,” she said in a May 25 speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa. In fact, conditions have deteriorated in many cases, she said.
“On the surface, it seems that the government simply needs to work harder to resolve these difficulties,” she said. “But I think we must look deeper than that. After 10 years, I have come to believe that more fundamental changes are required if we want to see meaningful progress in the well-being of First Nations. We cannot simply continue to do the same things in the same way. There needs to be a serious review of programs and services to First Nations—we need to identify what services should be provided and by whom, as well as the funding required and the expected results.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has long advocated for such a change in approach, also frequently noting the gap between the Canadian mainstream’s services and those that First Nations and other indigenous peoples receive. Of late he has made stronger and more insistent calls for a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and top aboriginal leaders. He acknowledged Fraser’s service in highlighting aboriginal issues in a recent statement.
“I want to thank Auditor General Sheila Fraser for her excellent work over the last decade and, in particular, acknowledge the enormous contributions she has made to raising awareness and understanding of the real issues facing First Nations and Canada,” Atleo said. “Ms. Fraser made First Nation and aboriginal issues one of her priorities from the very beginning of her term. Her work elevated the discussion by uncovering the real issues and the real solutions. In doing so, she provided a tremendous service to all Canadians. Her reports should be required reading for all parliamentarians and, indeed, for anyone looking at the situation of First Nations.”
In her speech, Fraser spelled out what her office’s audits have shown over the years: A number of issues not only hamper progress by affecting programs and services but also “negate the efforts of many dedicated public servants,” she said.
Using education as an example, Fraser pointed out that no legislation delineates responsibilities for educating children on reserves.
“Funding is insecure and often not timely because it is provided through short-term contribution agreements which are subject to the availability of funding—there are no statutory funding requirements or service standards,” she said. “And there are no school boards or equivalent organizations monitoring and supporting First Nations schools.”
This is in stark contrast to what the rest of Canada takes for granted.
“Developing First Nations institutions and capacity will be critical to success. Real improvement will depend on the full participation of both First Nations and the federal government. They will have to work together to address many obstacles—and it will not be easy,” she said. “However, unless we rise to the challenge, I believe that living conditions on reserves will lag behind the rest of Canada for generations to come.”