Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development

Support for Aboriginal Communities

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the government leader in the Senate. Today is five years after the historic day when the Prime Minister made his residential schools apology. Chief Atleo, head of the Assembly of First Nations, and all Aboriginal Canadians are not very happy at all.

Chief Atleo says there is a continuing colonial notion that the governments know best for First Nations. What Chief Atleo was saying is that we must break the pattern once and for all. Actions must match words. I have a number of questions.

When Chief Atleo says that actions must match words, the government does not seem to have satisfied Chief Atleo at all since the apology five years ago.

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): First of all, honourable senators it was a historic day. Many governments over many decades, including governments that you were associated with, absolutely did not apologize. I thought it was a very moving day and one that our government is very proud of.

Honourable Senator Munson would know this: The various issues facing our Aboriginal communities are complex and have been so for many years, but we have been working in partnership with First Nations for seven consecutive years. We are proud of the concrete steps we have taken to improve living conditions and economic opportunities for Aboriginal communities.

I will just put on the record some of the things the government has done. We have built and renovated hundreds of schools; increased funding for child and family services; settled over 80 outstanding land claims; built over 10,000 homes and renovated thousands more; invested in safe drinking water; and invested in over 700 projects that are linking Aboriginals across Canada with job training, counselling services and mentorship programs.

Economic Action Plan 2013, which we have before us, demonstrates our commitment to shared priorities and how we will continue to invest in measures that will contribute to stronger First Nations communities such as linking communities to power grids; improving broad band connectivity in remote communities; building roads and bridges; building new homes in Nunavut; and providing scholarships and bursaries to First Nations and Inuit students.

While we made significant progress, Senator Munson, we do recognize there is an incredible amount of work to be done. We will continue to work with our Aboriginal leaders, starting with Shawn Atleo, who has indicated his willingness to work with the government to create jobs and economic opportunities and create conditions for much stronger and more viable First Nations communities across the country because, as we have said many times, we want the opportunities available to all Canadians to be available to our First Nations people.

Senator Munson: That is your list. Here is mine. For Chief Atleo, as I mentioned to you — you did not really answer the question — the apology was just one step. You went back in history and said they were moving times. Everyone respects that your government apologized, but First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups have all advocated for increased funding for education to address the gap between Aboriginal students attending schools on reserve with those in provincial school systems. It is pretty simple: match that.

The government is fighting the Assembly of First Nations. This is Shawn Atleo, the chief you are talking about. You are fighting them and other groups in a child welfare case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. All of these calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women from many individuals, including Senator Lovelace Nicholas and Senator Dyck, have gone unanswered. Answer that.

Last fall the government announced that core funding for national Aboriginal groups would be cut by 10 per cent next year — answer that — while regional organizations will face either a 10 per cent cut or a ceiling of $500,000. Forty-three affected groups were notified in writing last week, and some, including the Assembly of First Nations, talking about Chief Atleo again — and you are talking about collaboration; I do not see it — are now facing cuts of 30 per cent to their budgets. Answer that.

Madam Leader, when will the cuts end and real efforts to help Aboriginal Canadians begin?

Senator LeBreton: I do believe, and the record will show, — that there have been unprecedented expenditures to improve the situation for our Aboriginal citizens.

You mentioned the missing and murdered women. I have said many times in this place that this is a horrific situation, one that deserves the shock and horror of the whole nation. However, I have listed many actions we have taken to address these serious issues with regard to missing and murdered women, including working alongside Aboriginal communities to develop community safety plans, supporting the development of culturally appropriate victim services, and supporting the development of public awareness materials to help end the cycles of violence against Aboriginal women.

As you also know, there is a special committee in the other place studying this issue. Over the past seven years, our government has also passed over 30 specific measures to keep our streets and communities safe, without a lot of support from the opposition for our comprehensive justice agenda.

With regard to Aboriginal education — I addressed this issue a couple weeks ago in the Senate — Minister Valcourt met in April, along with the Province of Ontario and the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation and signed an historic education agreement to benefit thousands of Ontario First Nations students. National Chief Atleo said this is a practical example of how Aboriginal peoples can improve their living conditions and work with governments. I think you are misrepresenting Chief Atleo to say that he is completely unhappy.

Obviously, as I mentioned a moment ago, we still have a great amount of work to do. We are responding to calls from the Auditor General and from a panel co-sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations for action on the development of a First Nations education act, and we provided new resources for new schools and programming for Aboriginal students. Of course, as I mentioned a moment ago, Budget 2013 designated new resources for scholarships, bursaries and personalized job skills training so that Aboriginal youth can take advantage of all the economic opportunities Canada has to offer.

Again, Senator Munson, we have achieved a great deal. Mr. Valcourt, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, is very engaged with the various Aboriginal leaders and has a very good understanding of the issues and these files since he had responsibility for these files back in the Mulroney government. While we have a lot to do, it is fair to say that a great deal has been accomplished since June 11, five years ago.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission—Government Cooperation

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, I have a third supplementary question.

Madam Leader, I think we are living in two different Canadas here. If 600 white women were murdered or had disappeared in this country, I have no doubt there would be more than just a public inquiry. You seem to be avoiding that question.

Here is what Chief Atleo said today in dealing with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of this country. He said:

Our people are calling for a true and collective commitment to reconciliation that respects First Nations peoples and rights as the way to a stronger Canada.

Madam Leader, let us take the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of this country. It was created using $60 million from the compensation fund of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which settled that largest class- action lawsuit in Canadian history.

The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples last week to discuss the commission’s progress. There is just over a year remaining. The commission’s five-year mandate is set to expire July 2014. This is what Mr. Justice Sinclair explained:

The fact that the TRC has not yet received the majority of the documents in Canada’s possession has the potential to compromise the ability of the commission to comply with its mandate, as well as the quality and extent of the commission’s research and final report.

In the committee, Mr. Justice Sinclair went on to say:

With 13 months left in our mandate it is hard to imagine that the documents can be produced to us in time for them to contribute to this latter aspect of our mandate.

Madam Leader, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is central to strengthening the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Government of Canada.

Can you explain, without going back into all of your selective history, why the government fought the commission’s legitimate and reasonable request for documentation pertaining to its work?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Well, again, you were misinformed, Senator Munson. We are and have been —

Senator Munson: I am not misinformed.

Senator LeBreton: Well, you are. We are committed to a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of the Indian residential schools. That is why, thus far, we have disclosed over 3.5 million documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The settlement agreement, as you properly state, is court-directed, and we will continue to honour and respect all the terms of that agreement.

There is no conflict here, Senator Munson. We have already provided 3.5 million documents. It is a court-directed program, and we certainly will continue to honour and respect the work of the court.

Senator Munson: I have a further quick supplementary question. I am not misinformed. Why can you not answer the question, madam leader, of what Justice Sinclair said? Are you, therefore, prepared to hand over all the documents they need to do their work? Can you just simply say “yes”? Would that not be nice for a change?

Senator LeBreton: I think I just answered that question when I said that 3.5 million documents have been handed over as a court-directed process, which we honour and respect, and we are continuing to work within that system.