OTTAWA — The federal government still hasn't provided First Nations with the support they need to respond to emergencies such as wildfires and floods despite warnings almost a decade ago, says a new report from Canada's auditor general.
Karen Hogan audited Indigenous Services Canada's handling of emergency management, concluding the department was too reactive, instead of proactively spending on infrastructure to mitigate damages when floods, fires and landslides strike.
The report points out that as of April, there were 112 such projects that did not have funding despite meeting the criteria for eligibility. It says 74 of them had been in the department's backlog for more than five years.
"Until these projects are completed, First Nations communities are likely to continue to experience emergencies that could be averted by investing in the right infrastructure," the report reads.
Based on the First Nations Infrastructure Fund's annual budget of $12 million, it would take the department an estimated 24 years to fund the projects, the report adds.
"As a result, First Nations communities are likely to continue to experience emergencies that could be prevented or mitigated by building the infrastructure."
Hogan found that the Indigenous Services department provides emergency assistance to First Nations by negotiating agreements with provinces and agencies such as the Canadian Red Cross.
Her report says there have been more than 1,300 emergencies in First Nations communities over the past decade, resulting in more than 130,000 people being forced to leave their homes and traditional lands.
The figures are only expected to grow, given the impacts of climate change, Hogan said, telling a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday that Indigenous people are "displaced more often by natural disasters."
Her report warns the department is spending 3.5 times more money helping First Nations recover from such disasters than it is on helping them prepare.
Over the past several fiscal years, that has amounted to $646 million toward responding to disasters on reserves, compared to $182 million on preventive efforts.
"It is likely that Indigenous Services Canada is incurring significant costs to respond to — and help First Nations communities recover from — emergencies that could have been mitigated or avoided," the report says.
"First Nations will continue to be more vulnerable to emergencies if they are not adequately supported to prepare for and mitigate emergencies."
Hogan made a series of recommendations, all of which Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said the department accepts.
"This work has to happen more quickly," she said Tuesday, adding the government recognizes the need to get ahead of the effects climate change is having on First Nation communities.
The auditor had pointed out, however, that issues flagged by the office back in 2013 went unaddressed.
That included a recommendation, almost a decade ago, calling on Ottawa to identify which First Nations communities were the least equipped to manage an emergency.
Doing that work "would allow the department to target investments in these communities, such as building culverts and dikes to prevent seasonal floods, and to help avoid some of the costs of responding to and recovering from emergencies," Hogan's report says.
Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents many First Nations in the province's north, said in a statement that the federal government is leaving communities to fend for themselves in the face of a "deadly climate crisis."
"First Nations know what they need to do to manage emergencies in their communities and on their territories and what needs to be done to save lives. But the Liberals aren't giving them the support they need."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press