The Auditor General has raised flags about the way emergencies are handled in First Nation communities in his 2013 Fall Report, released on Nov. 26.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson examined a number of issues in his report that the federal government had been struggling to address, including online government services, food recalls, illegal entry into Canada, emergency management on First Nations reserves, oversight of rail safety, disaster relief for agricultural producers, and internal controls over financial reporting.
“Our audit of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s role in supporting emergency management on First Nations reserves showed that the department is in a cycle of reacting to emergencies,” Ferguson said in the report. “It has not been able to focus on what can be done to prevent and mitigate these events.”
Ferguson said some reserves continue to be adversely affected in significant ways by repeated emergencies, such as floods.
“These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the respective roles and responsibilities of the federal government and other stakeholders are unclear,” Ferguson said. “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada must work with other stakeholders, including First Nations, to reduce the human and financial costs of emergencies over the long-term.”
The report indicated that AANDC spent $286 million between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 on emergency situations, of which $180 million - or 63 per cent - was spent on response and recovery, with only $4 million on prevention and mitigation. The report also called for an immediate increase in the annual budget of AANDC for immediate response, prevention and mitigation activities, noting the costs of emergency response must often come from funds identified for capital spending, which deprives First Nations of much-needed funds for infrastructure.
“The facts here are truly alarming - at least 9,500 First Nations citizens were evacuated due to major fire and flooding emergencies in 2011 in the three regions visited during the audit,” said National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo about the report. “The impact to families can be devastating in terms of disruptions to children’s education, employment, First Nation businesses and overall community well-being.”
A number of First Nations across northern Ontario have faced emergency situations due to flooding over the years, including Attawapiskat, Kasabonika and Kashechewan, which were evacuated in 2013.
Communities have also faced emergency situations due to nearby forest fires, including Sandy Lake, Deer Lake and Cat Lake, which were evacuated in 2011.
Ferguson said the federal government needs to improve the results on issues identified in his report.
“Even when government identifies a problem, it takes too long to develop and implement solutions,” Ferguson said. “Departments need to focus on critical success factors that are proven to work. These include setting clear priorities, applying lessons learned, and monitoring deliverables against timelines and objectives.”
“We have seen too many crises in our communities that could have been avoided with better coordinated plans and adequate resources,” Atleo said. “As the Auditor General points out, the department is caught in a cycle of only reacting to emergencies. This must end. The AFN (Assembly of First Nations) has put forward plans and approaches to the federal government and provincial and territorial leaders including efforts like those we supported in the recent Alberta floods. Now it’s time to act on these plans across the country.”
Atleo said the AFN has been pressing for a better, more coordinated approach by all levels of government to emergency management that deals not only with responding to crises but also actions aimed at preventing and mitigating disasters wherever possible.
“We are calling for proper investments in long-term and sustainable plans that are developed in coordination with First Nations,” Atleo said. “Today’s report finds that upfront investments and planning reduce costs when disasters do hit. Last week, the Aboriginal Affairs minister stated that the federal government was willing to better improve access and support for First Nations emergency management. Now, we need to see real action by the federal government to work with First Nations on this critical matter. Nothing less than the lives of our people and well-being of our families is at stake.”
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