The federal government’s inability to help improve life for Indigenous people in Canada is an “incomprehensible failure,” according to the auditor general.
A new scathing audit report states Indigenous Services Canada has not adequately collected data – and sometimes reported inaccurate data – about the well-being of First Nations living on reserve.
With incomplete information on factors like education, income and health, Indigenous Services Canada has also failed to track the country’s progress in closing socioeconomic gaps between on-reserve First Nations and the rest of Canada, the report concludes.
“There are so many discussions about the need to close the socio-economic gaps between Indigenous people and other Canadians in this country and we don’t see those gaps closing,” said Auditor General Michael Ferguson on Tuesday, after the report was tabled in the House of Commons.
“We don’t even see that they know how to measure those gaps.”
That also means Parliamentarians who have rubber-stamped funding for Indigenous communities have not had the full picture of life on-reserve.
For example, the report states government spent $42 million over four years (2012-2013 to 2015-2016) for a First Nations post-secondary education preparation program.
But auditors found only eight per cent of those enrolled actually completed program.
“Despite these poor results, the department did not work with First Nations or education institutions to improve the success rates,” said Ferguson.
The report also found the department reported inaccurate data to Parliament concerning the number of First Nations students who graduated high school within four years.
The department reported almost half of First Nations students (46 per cent) finished high school, on average, between 2011 and 2016.
However, auditors found only 24 per cent who started high school in grade 9 actually finished in four years.
“These findings matter because, without complete and accurate information, Canadians, First Nations, and Parliamentarians were not fully informed about the true extent of First Nations’ education results or the education gap,” the report reads.
The federal government was also “inconsistent” in its funding approach to educating students over age 21. While an elementary and secondary education program was meant for students aged four to 21, a “significant” number of students over the age limit were funded. Yet other older students wishing to return to high school were denied funding.
Also, despite 30 years of federal funding to various employment training programs for Indigenous people, the report concludes the federal government failed to track whether more Indigenous people are successfully finding jobs and staying employed.
“They didn’t have a definition of what sustainable employment means,” said Ferguson. “Even if somebody got a part-time job or a job for five days working on a construction project, they counted that as one of the clients getting a job, even though it’s very short-term.”
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said she welcomes the report’s findings, noting the Liberal government is working with First Nations to better track progress on closing socioeconomic gaps.
Contrary to Ferguson’s characterization of the report’s findings, Philpott said the gaps are “absolutely comprehensible” considering how Indigenous programs and services have been underfunded for generations.
But Ferguson said past governments are not solely to blame.
The new Indigenous Services Canada department received $2.6 billion to fund its core education funding budget from the 2016-2017 fiscal year until 2020-2021. However, auditors deemed the department’s analysis to support this amount was “insufficient.”
In August 2017, the federal government announced it was splitting Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into two different departments: Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
Ferguson said this could be a step towards improving services for First Nations – but we won’t know unless there’s a way to track the outcomes.
“What we really need to see is actual changes in results.”