Aboriginals need help: AG

Posted on January 2, 2011 in Equality Debates

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EdmontonJournal.com – life – Outgoing auditor general shines light on plight of First Nations
January 2, 2011.    By Laura Stone, Postmedia News

Auditor General Sheila Fraser has spent a good part of the past decade uncovering what she calls the “huge shortfalls” in federal programs and services designed for Canada’s First Nations.

The fiscal watchdog said it’s not a focus she originally expected to take when she took office 10 years ago, but, through her work, Fraser has become a leading voice in the discussion of the problems that plague the country’s aboriginal communities.

“Canada is a very — as compared to most — a very wealthy country. And when you look at citizens that don’t have assurances of having safe drinking water, I don’t think most Canadians know that and don’t understand maybe the responsibilities that the federal government does have (to First Nations),” Fraser recently told Postmedia News.

“It really comes back to issues of poverty, and education, and poor health outcomes,” she said.

Early in her work, Fraser — whose term will end on May 31 — began visiting First Nations and hearing from community members.

“We changed our approach a few years ago and tried to see a bit how the programs were viewed by the people receiving them, and the issues that they had. I have to say, the First Nations people have been absolutely so generous to us in sharing their perspective on the programs,” she said.

Throughout her mandate, Fraser’s audits have highlighted key issues facing First Nations: the significant education gap between reserves and the rest of Canada, the high numbers of aboriginal children in state care, the lack of safe drinking water on reserves and the excessive reporting requirements to federal officials.

In doing so, Fraser’s focus on First Nations, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, has been unprecedented.

While the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has been audited in the past, Fraser formalized a First Nations advisory panel early in her mandate that would address issues facing reserves.

The panel is made up of six or seven First Nations members from across the country who meet once a year and advise the office of the auditor general on issues and areas of concern.

She has since completed 16 audits on First Nations, while her predecessor had nine, and is expected to release a final spring audit that will focus in part on First Nations.

For her part, Fraser says more needs to be done.

“There is no comparison done in those programs between the level of services that First Nations people receive as compared to provincial (levels),” Fraser said.

“This comparison really has to be done and I think we’re going to see that there are huge shortfalls.”

Kathleen Lickers, a lawyer and a member of Six Nations near Hamilton, Ont., who sits on the First Nations advisory panel, said Fraser’s audits have drawn significant attention to First Nations.

“I believe it has bolstered the need for change. It’s precisely because this office takes the work of audit seriously. The thoroughness of their investigation and analysis is astounding,” said Lickers.

“Why is the quality of life for thousands of individuals and communities so disparate from the rest of Canada? We can’t just accept that without explanation. And once we know where some of the answers lie, what are we prepared to do about it, as Canadians?”

At an Assembly of First Nations special assembly last month, National Chief Shawn Atleo said Fraser’s work has had “a consistent impact” on issues that affect their daily lives.
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