APTN National News
OTTAWA–When it came to detailed questions about First Nations children and youth, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt drew blanks.
Valcourt faced questions from MPs Wednesday evening during Committee of the Whole in the House of Commons which focused on his department. Many of the questions centered on education, child welfare and youth suicide rates.
While Valcourt was more than willing to throw around large dollar figures to defend his government’s handling of the Aboriginal Affairs file, the minister repeatedly came up short when faced with specific questions about issues like per capita student funding for on reserve education, literacy rates, child welfare numbers and on-reserve youth suicide rates.
At one point, a frustrated Valcourt, facing a question from an NDP MP about suicide rates, blurted that the fate of First Nations children was not the responsibility of the federal Aboriginal Affairs department.
“Given the horrific death rates that we have among children who do not have access to schools, if he can tell us what the national suicide rate is on reserve among young people under his watch?” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose Timmins-James Bay riding includes the communities of Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Fort Albany.
“The assertion of the honourable member that these children are under the minister’s watch shows a great misunderstanding by the member of the responsibility of the department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development,” said Valcourt. “These children are first and foremost the responsibility of their parents throughout Canada.”
The high rate of suicides in First Nation communities is widely linked to the abject poverty on many reserves, which are federal responsibility, and the continuing aftershocks of the over century-long operation of Indian residential schools, which were created by Ottawa
Angus responded with a cutting retort.
“That is not your responsibility? You are a clown. That man is a clown,” said Angus.
Valcourt also drew a blank when asked by Angus about the number of First Nations children, under 14, in the care of social services. Aboriginal Affairs, which funds on-reserve child and family services, is facing a human rights complaint over an allegation it underfunds First Nations child welfare.
Valcourt said the department has no responsibility for children in care beyond paying for the services.
“As the responsibility is delegated to agencies by the provinces, I cannot give the exact figure of the number of children who are in care tonight. These are figures that I am sure we could gather after the fact,” said Valcourt. “However, as the member knows, this responsibility is to the several agencies and the provinces that administer child welfare services on reserves where there are no agencies.”
Angus said Valcourt’s department actually keeps readily available statistics on the issue.
“Actually, I got it from the minister’s own documents. The number is 30,000 to 40,000. I think the minister does not have his facts right,” said Angus. “Does the minister not keep track of the number of children that are in care that his government is paying for?”
Valcourt said he did not check child welfare figures “every day” and repeated that the department has no obligation for child welfare beyond meeting policy requirements to fund the services.
“When the member talks about an obligation, I will remind the honourable member that this is a policy matter. This is a policy decision to reimburse provinces and to fund the agencies,” said Valcourt.
Manitoba has made national headlines over its overwhelmed child welfare system which primarily seizes First Nations children and babies. Last summer’s Winnipeg murder of Tina Fontaine, who was in the care of the province at the time of her death, revealed a broken system that housed children and youth in hotels.
Valcourt also didn’t deny a suggestion from Angus that Ottawa wants to download responsibility of on-reserve child welfare to the provinces and provincial-level agencies.
The minister, whose government has claimed First Nations education to be a priority, also drew a blank when it came to on-reserve literacy and numeracy rates for students.
“This is information that I do not have in front of me, but we could provide it to the honourable member,” said Valcourt.
“I read it in the (department’s) report,” said Angus. “It was the first time that it ever kept those numbers.”
Angus said boys in Ontario First Nations had a literacy score of 21 per cent and a numeracy score of 18 per cent.
“I do not know if the minister can name a country in the world where those rates would be lower,” said Angus.
Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett took aim at Valcourt over the apparent drop in the number of First Nation and Inuit students accessing the post-secondary student support program. Bennett said in 1997, 22, 938 students were in the program, but that number dropped to 18,729 in 2009.
“Can the minister tell us what the current total back log for First Nations and Inuit individuals waiting for support through the post-secondary student support program is? What is the wait list backlog?” said Bennett.
Valcourt said he didn’t know because the program is administered at the band level.
“This is information that they have and we do not,” said Valcourt.
Valcourt said between 20,000 to 22,000 students were currently in the post-secondary student support program.
Valcourt also dodged a question about his department sharing information on Indigenous activist with law enforcement and intelligence agencies under the Harper government’s proposed anti-terror law. If Bill C-51 becomes law, agencies like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP would be able to access Indian status records, which contain geological information, and other personal information held by Aboriginal Affairs.
“(Under Bill-C51), will the department be able to proactively share information that is collected on Indigenous activists with security and intelligence agencies?” said NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Niki Ashton.
“Last time I checked, I am not responsible for public safety,” said Valcourt.
Ashton then brought up the RCMP’s apology for a comparison likening the Idle No More movement to “bacteria” made by one the force’s Aboriginal liaison officers.
“The parliamentary secretary to the minister of Public Safety said that it was absolutely abhorrent that anyone would ask the government to apologize for this kind of discriminatory language,” said Ashton. “Does the minister agree with the parliamentary secretary?”
Valcourt said the federal government did not share the bacteria view.
“Can I do more than just reiterate that the government of Canada does not share the view of that sole employee of the RCMP who has chosen to characterize the movement that way he has,” said Valcourt. “This is not the view of our government and I repeat, we think that the RCMP has appropriately apologized for the statement of that member of the RCMP.”