Aboriginal and Northern Affairs – Education and Social Services

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is directed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Last December, Senator Dyck and I asked why funding for First Nations children living on reserves lags so far behind that of their peers in provincial school systems.

The leader used the word “commendable” when she talked about the government’s record. However, according to reports this week, education is not the only underfunded government program affecting children living on reserves. Social assistance is also woefully insufficient and is literally tearing families apart by forcing thousands of young Aboriginal children out of their homes and into foster care.

As the leader might have read, this matter is now before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, where underfunding of services, including education, as well as high rates of Aboriginal children in foster care will be examined over the next 14 weeks.

Shawn Atleo, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, testified at the hearing a few days ago. He cited studies indicating that other Canadian children receive 22 per cent more social assistance from the provinces.

Before the leader tells honourable senators that social assistance funding for First Nations children has increased by 25 per cent since 2007, will she explain why her government has spent more than $3 million during that same time frame fighting this human rights complaint instead of investing more in young Aboriginal children? Would she also describe this record as commendable?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I absolutely would describe the government’s efforts in this regard as commendable, and I believe that the new Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada will, as he has stated publicly, work with our First Nations leaders to resolve all of these issues.

Obviously, the best way to resolve these issues is to ensure that all levels of government and the leadership of the First Nations get together and support efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginal families, including children, and to ensure that they get proper education.

Minister Valcourt has already held a number of meetings. Many recommendations have been made to the minister and the government. I thank Senator Munson for repeating that we have increased funding to these services by 25 per cent. We will continue to work with First Nations to ensure that children and families get the support they need. We know the importance of this. I am confident that going forward Minister Valcourt and the government will give these matters the attention that is needed to get the results that are absolutely necessary.

Senator Munson: An increase of 25 per cent is not enough. The provinces are doing more for our children than the federal government is doing for Aboriginal children.

The Leader of the Government in the Senate and Chief Atleo are not on the same page on this issue. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the infamous residential school system which is a scar on our shared history.

The leader’s government formally apologized for this four years ago, but this week Mr. Atleo drew this comparison during an interview with The Globe and Mail. He said:

While the previous policy was explicit in seeking to remove children and to `kill the Indian in the child,’ the experience of first nations in relation to the child-welfare system is that, if it’s not the explicit intent to kill the Indian in the child and remove children, it certainly has been the experience in our communities.

He added:

They are being deprived of their language, their culture and the places they call home.

Social workers must make every effort to keep children in their family homes. This is according to Mr. Atleo. You can use the word “commendable” and talk about your funding increases, but not very much has changed.

There is simply not enough money to finance the services that would allow this to occur. The figures do not lie. There were 27,000 young Aboriginal children in foster care as of 2006.

In comparative history, this exceeds the number of children entering the residential school system at its peak. This is 2013.

Can the leader undertake that the government will, in addition to spending the 25 per cent increase, reverse this disturbing trend?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, obviously the government is seized of these issues. The previous minister moved these files a considerable way.

I should remind the Honourable Senator Munson that it was our government, the Harper government, that introduced an enhanced prevention-based approach to protect thousands of children living on-reserve. We were the ones that resolved the residential school issue. We have made great strides. That is not to say that there is not a lot of work yet to do. There obviously is.

With regard to education, we have increased transfers to provinces because much of this is administered by provinces. There is obviously a lot of work to do, but any fair person, even you, Senator Munson, would have to acknowledge that on these files this government has made a huge effort to improve the situation with regard to our Aboriginal citizens. Much information has been provided to this chamber, including about the amount of money we have spent building schools. The government has done a host of things that I have put on the record many times.

Is it enough? Obviously there is still a lot to do. Minister Valcourt is the type of person who will advance these files. I am looking forward to his doing so in the interests of not only the Aboriginal peoples but all Canadians.

Senator Munson: I do not know why the leader always has to say “even you,” but I guess that is just her way.

The leader is conceding, in the interest of fairness, that the government has not done enough, because she just said there is a lot more to do.

Senator LeBreton: It is just me. I was simply saying that we have done a great deal. This is a growing population, and there are many complex issues. Obviously there is a great deal of work to do. The honourable senator must not read into this that I am conceding that we have not done a great deal, because we have.