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Appropriation Bill No. 3 2016-17 Second Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in respect of Bill C-20, Appropriation Act No. 3, in its capacity as the means of funding the measures laid out in the Supplementary Estimates (A).

Today, I'd like to briefly focus upon First Nations housing specifically. As we learned through study of these estimates in your Standing Senate Committee on National Finance, the supplementary estimates are primarily assessing the first year of investments announced in Budget 2016, totalling $8.4 billion over five years, to support indigenous communities and the aspirations of indigenous people.

Of the 10 organizations which appeared before your committee in its study of Supplementary Estimates (A), two of them are involved in First Nations housing: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, both on the theme of on-reserve First Nations housing.

Supplementary Estimates (A) includes a net increase of $1.2 billion for initiatives, which will bring total investment for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to about $8.8 billion for this fiscal year to address the needs of indigenous people and northerners. Of this, funding for affordable housing and social infrastructure projects totals $241 million.

With regard to overhead objectives, those for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada aim to improve well-being and economic prosperity; develop healthier, more sustainable communities; and participate more fully in Canada's political, social and economic development.

The department provides funding to First Nations communities to support on-reserve housing. It is critical to note that through its study of the Supplementary Estimates (A) and on reflection of its continued oversight of the department's finances, your committee has determined that it's unclear what the department has achieved with the funding it receives for on-reserve housing.

While it is encouraging to see tangible demonstrations of commitments aimed at achieving progress in the resetting of the relationship with Canada's First Peoples, it is incumbent upon us to help ensure that this is done sustainably.

What's more, we must make every effort to ensure that such efforts, and the significant expenditures planned in aid of them, are carried out strategically in a coordinated fashion and with clear means of assessing the degrees of our success or failure in these endeavours.

We made the observation that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada should embark upon the development of a First Nations housing strategy. Such a strategic endeavour would outline the current extent of the need for housing on-reserve; specify annual objectives to address housing needs; provide means of reporting on progress achieved on meeting housing needs; ensure that housing is constructed in accordance with the appropriate building code, and bearing in mind the need or desire of a community to accommodate local climatic and topographical conditions; and, importantly, clarify the specific roles and responsibilities of the federal organizations engaged in First Nations housing.

Honourable senators, quite frankly, I find myself somewhat baffled that we find ourselves having to make such observations. Given the magnitude and persistence of the problem, and its absolute fundamental nature, given the importance of ensuring adequate shelter, why do we not have a First Nations housing strategy? After all, it's 2016.

Does it not follow, then, that a First Nations housing strategy should complement and reflect the overarching tenets and principles of a national housing strategy, under the purview of Canada's national housing agency, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation? One might reasonably think so, yet this is not the case.

Your committee observed during its study of Supplementary Estimates (A) that Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is spending considerable funds prior to developing a national housing strategy this year. This is, thankfully, planned — hopefully — for the near future.

In its 2016-2020 Summary of the Corporate Plan, CMHC has committed to improving housing in First Nations communities by addressing urgent housing needs on-reserve through funding of $137.7 million over two years, mostly to support the renovation and retrofit of existing housing on-reserve; and, second, by working with First Nations communities over the coming year to develop an effective long-term approach to supporting the construction and maintenance of an adequate supply of housing on-reserve as part of a broader national housing framework.

Colleagues, it is clear that efforts must be improved to coordinate the construction, code compliancy, maintenance and renovation of First Nations housing.

It is equally clear that the pursuit of the inherent right to self- government by First Nations communities must continue to be respected by the federal government. That is to say, there are elements of oversight and accountability that are to be the purview of First Nations band councils. But such pursuits must be matched with a commitment to ensuring that any undertaking funded by Canadian taxpayers is subject to sufficient standards and degrees of oversight and accountability.

Honourable senators, observance of process must not become the inhibitor of innovation. Whether by the Government of Canada or by a band council, there must be adequate follow-up to determine that money reaches those for whom it was intended and has achieved the prescribed result. This is especially true in other areas of programs and expenditures for indigenous communities.

Reporting and analysis of horizontal undertakings in which myriad departments, agencies and Crown corporations are involved must improve, and I suggest that your Standing Senate Committee on National Finance might be a most effective lever towards helping ensure that they do.

We must review those horizontal matrices to ensure their overall coordination across the federal domain; to determine that measurable progress is being made such that methods of identifying areas requiring correction are in place and that such adjustments to course are made; and lastly, that unless and until a regimen of report cards is in place, Parliament receives regular indications of the degree of return on investment for these funds. We spend the money, but we don't know if it achieves anything.

Honourable senators, in April of this year, at an address to the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, CMHC President Evan Siddall said:

. . . it is in places like . . . First Nations reserves, where our housing system is severely put to the test.

And where in too many instances, in too many communities, and for too many families, it falls far short of delivering the types of housing outcomes that people deserve.

We owe it to the peoples in First Nations communities to provide clearer and more insightful reporting and analyses of results achieved. First Nations families deserve better housing programs guided by an overhead strategy and sustainably funded on a basis of ongoing program review and effective oversight. The observations I have shed light upon today are but a first step in a larger undertaking to which we should commit: to examine these expenditures with greater rigour to both determine and ensure that real progress is being made.