My friend Russell Diabo, who is contesting the position of Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), has sent me a copy of the recent report by the Auditor-General of Canada into what it calls the “Socio-Economic Gaps on First Nations Reserves.”
This in an innocuous-sounding title, but from beginning to end it literally made me gasp. I think I can explain why.
Since my first contact in 1968 with the Department of Indian Affairs as it was then known, I have regarded it as an outfit, governed by laws deriving from the colonialist ignorance and prejudice of the early settlers, that has always been used by the government of Canada as a smokescreen designed to obscure the iron-fisted control held over the daily lives of what were then called “Indians”, and are now more properly called First Nations, Inuit or Metis. One thing one could never expect from the Department was a straight-forward account of what they were doing; they hid their purposes with a skilfully-erected and masterfully managed wall of euphemism behind which they appeared to a close observer to be woefully out of touch with their clients, whose interests they were expected to represent and with whom they had been given a trustee relationship that they fell scandalously short of fulfilling.
There was a slightly sinister aspect to this: although there were no doubt some good people in the Department, one had the feeling that it was a phalanx of civil servants who were basically indifferent to the condition of the country’s poorest group of people, for whose welfare they bore the major responsibility.
My present astonishment comes from the brutal frankness of the Auditor-General in describing the shortcomings of this Department (now called Indigenous Services Canada). He begins by quoting the directive of the Prime Minister to the responsible Minister “ to make real progress on issues essential to Indigenous communities, such as housing, employment, health care, community safety, child welfare, and education,” a remarkably clear and unmistakably activist suggestion for immediate action. He then recalled how previous reports from his agency in 2000, 2004 and 2011 had “criticized the federal government’s progress in improving the lives and well-being of people on reserves,” to very little effect, as his reort makes plain.
Then, zeroing in on education and what had been achieved, or not achieved, the auditor remarked
*that the Department did not adequately use the large amount of program data provided by First Nations, nor did it adequately use other available data and information.
*did not meaningfully engage with First Nations to satisfactorily measure and report on whether the lives of people on First Nations reserves were improving.
*did not adequately measure and report on the education gap. In fact, their calculations showed that this gap had widened in the past 15 years.
* remarked that “these findings matter because measuring and reporting on progress in closing socio-economic gaps would help everyone involved… to understand whether their efforts to improve lives are working.
*If the gaps are not smaller in future years, this would mean that the federal approach needs to change.
The Auditor then broke the inefficiencies down into four points, accusing the Department of having “an inadequate measurement of well-being among First Nations on reserves”, having limited data available to tackle the job, having a system of incomplete reporting on well-being, and, finally, as I have always suspected, “lack of meaningful engagement,” with their Indigenous clients.
Stripped of its bureaucratic calmness, this report more or less supports everything I had felt about the department these 50 years. I don't know if I am unusual, but I found these deficiencies spelled out so clearly to be quite astonishing. Under each of the above four headings they piled on such brutal criticism as to reveal a Department that appears to have been completely indifferent to its mission as trustee for the welfare of its clients. For example, they used a Community Well-Being index, which was based on only the four components of education, employment, housing and income. The Auditor added: “While these are important aspects of well-being, the index did not include critical variables such as health, environment, language, and culture. First Nations have identified language and culture, in particular, as critical to their well-being.” And then he added a further killer description of Departmental indifference: “Although the Department recognized that the index was incomplete, it did not modify the index to make it more comprehensive or establish a more complete measure or set of measures for assessing the well-being of on-reserve First Nations people.”
He did not stop there: on and on roll the fundamental criticisms of the Department’s performance. Again, an example: In 2015 Canada, along with other nations adopted the UN General Assembly’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development, designed “to mobilize global efforts to ensure healthy lives, end poverty, and fight climate change,” containing 17 sustainable goals, and 169 targets for achieving economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. BUT, wrote the Auditor-General, “In our opinion, Canada’s results against the Agenda’s 17 goals for First Nations people would likely be significantly worse than those for the whole Canadian population. In fact, according to the 2011 Community Well-Being index, 98 of the 100 lowest-scoring Canadian communities were First Nations communities.
But not to worry: even such a staggering shortfall in effort appears to have left the Department indifferent. Between 2001 and 2011 (the last date on which the Department’s figures were based, in itself an indication of how faulty the data they were using must have been), one out of every three First Nations communities had “experienced a decline in the index scores under the Community Well-Being index.” In other words, things are getting worse instead of better.
On and on it goes, a merciless account of an indifferent government Department, apparently only half engaged, if that, in its work:
· In 2000, Indigenous Services Canada committed to measuring and reporting on the education gap every two years. As of December 2017, we found that the Department had not met this commitment.
· in 2011, the average education score for First Nations communities was 36, while for Canadian non-Indigenous communities, it was 53. And even that did not reflect the real gap, because of the lack of reliable data the Department collected.
· On comparative high school graduation figures, they found that, while results for First Nations had improved, the results for all Canadians had improved by a greater amount: The gap was 30 percentage points in 2001 and 33 percentage points in 2016. This, they believed, was a clearer way to measure and report on education results and would help to provide a more meaningful picture of well-being.
Concentrating their attention on the management of First Nations education by the Department, the Auditor reported that a huge reporting burden was thrown on to the First Nations, which were ill-equipped to shoulder it. The many forms they had to fill in for each student amounted to 920 datafields, many of which had to be filled in for each of the 107,000 elementary and secondary, and the estimated 24,000 post-secondary students supported by the Department.
Of course, I suppose I could argue that in 1968, when I first looked at the education figures for First Nations students, there were very few of them in high schools, and almost none in post-secondary education, so the current figures are far greater than they were half a century ago. (That seems to be a meaningless fact to parade: the current most important fact is that any pretence they have been brought up to equality of educational opportunity with non-natïve sudents is far from the truth.)
To all of these criticisms, the Department had the same response: Agreed, followed by what sounds like bureaucratic bafflegab:
“Agreed. Indigenous Services Canada is actively working with First Nations to transform elementary and secondary education, and will be co-developing renewed education outcomes, measurements, and a related data strategy.
“Agreed. Indigenous Services Canada will build on the Community Well-Being index by co-developing, with First Nations and other partners, a broad dashboard of well-being outcomes that will reflect mutually agreed-upon metrics in measuring and reporting on closing socio-economic gaps.
“Agreed. The Department is working with First Nations and other Indigenous partners to transform post-secondary education. Embedded in the approach to renewed education will be agreement on mutual accountability and practices promoting complete and accurate reporting.
When Russell Diabo in his leadership campaign says the AFN has not analysed in any way the damning information in this report, he must surely be touching a sensitive nerve. Especially when he also charges that the AFN leadership is acting too much like a representative of the government Department, rather than of the grassroots indigenous people, whose lack of opportunity is reflected in all these damning figures.