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Published March 19, 2024

'Completely discouraged': Auditor slams First Nations housing, policing failures

Frist Nations housing - CP

By Alessia Passafiume and Laura Osman

The federal auditor general is "completely discouraged" to see so little improvement to substandard housing in First Nations over the past two decades, a new report says.

Karen Hogan also looked at the planned expansion of the highly criticized First Nations policing program, and found poor management is leaving communities underserved and funds unspent.

The reports tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday paint a bleak picture of Ottawa's record on First Nations housing and policing. 

"Time after time, whether in housing, policing, safe drinking water or other critical areas, our audits of federal programs to support Canada's Indigenous Peoples reveal a distressing and persistent pattern of failure," Hogan said at a press conference Tuesday.

"The lack of progress clearly demonstrates that the government's passive, siloed approach is ineffective, and, in fact, contradicts the spirit of true reconciliation."

It's the fourth time since 2003 that the auditor general has held the government responsible for unsafe and unsuitable First Nations housing.

Hogan's report says communities with the poorest housing conditions received the least funding, and the government failed to ensure homes met building code standards. 

"Many people living in First Nations communities do not have access to housing that is safe and in good condition— a fundamental human right," the report reads.

"Improving housing for First Nations is vital for their physical, mental and economic health and well-being."

From 2018-19 to 2022-23, Indigenous Services and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provided funding to build 11,754 new housing units, and to repair 15,859 existing units. 

That represents about a fifth of what's needed in new builds and repairs to close existing gaps, Hogan found.

She noted construction in communities can be challenging, especially if they're in rural and remote regions, which limits the construction season and available workers. The pandemic, too, introduced some delays to projects.

Still, a lack of proper housing is associated with family violence, substance use, suicide and economic obstacles, Hogan said, and can contribute to a loss of culture if there are no housing options in communities, forcing migration.

"After four audit reports, I can honestly say that I am completely discouraged that so little has changed, and that so many First Nations individuals and families continue to live in substandard homes," Hogan said at a press conference Tuesday.

And as time drags on, she said, the gaps will continue to grow.

The $3.86 billion in housing allocated for First Nations communities over the past five years is just a fraction of the $44 billion the Assembly of First Nations estimates is needed to improve housing by 2030, Hogan noted.

She estimated that an additional $16 billion is needed for future housing needs related to population growth from 2022 until 2040.

While Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation are currently responsible for supporting First Nations housing, the former has a mandate to transfer governance responsibilities to First Nations.

Hogan's report found the department is in the early stages of doing that, but no significant policy framework is in place to guide its approach.

"A strategy is important considering the short period of time left to close the gap, the size of the gap, the limited funding available and the  challenges First Nations face when building infrastructure," the report reads.

In a second report, the auditor found serious issues related to the planned expansion of a highly criticized program that provides police services to First Nations.

The Liberals promised a $500-million expansion to the program in 2021, which sees the federal and provincial government combine funds to pay for policing on First Nations.

"Since additional funding was received to expand the program, no communities had been added to an existing self-administered police service agreement within our audit period," Hogan noted in her report.

Hogan's report also said the RCMP was not living up to its commitments to communities, was not spending money equitably and was set to leave $45 million allocated for the program unspent this year.

For example, in a sample of 26 communities served by RCMP under the program, only 38 per cent had officers who could spend 100 per cent of their time dedicated to the communities they serve, as required.

"By not fulfilling some of their responsibilities under the program, Public Safety Canada's and the RCMP's actions are not aligned with building trust with First Nations and Inuit communities and with the federal government’s commitment to truth and reconciliation," Hogan said in her report.

The First Nations policing program has long come under criticism, both in a past performance audit and as part of a human-rights complaint and litigation.

A third report published Tuesday found the government's $4.6-billion program to bolster transportation infrastructure across the country is well-crafted overall but suffers from poor results tracking. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024

Banner image via The Canadian Press

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