TORONTO — Staff at Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs could only name 30 of the government’s 140 programs and services for Indigenous Peoples when asked for a list, the province’s auditor general said Monday.
“The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs does not lead or co-ordinate Indigenous programs across government and was not aware of all the provincial programs designed to support Indigenous Peoples and communities at the time of the audit,” the auditor general’s office said in a news release about its annual reports.
“Overall, our audit found that the Ministry has neither taken the lead, nor been given the authority required to coordinate the province’s policies, programs and services for Indigenous Peoples,” the audit said.
The auditor said the ministry’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic was successful and a “contrast” to how it handled other issues.
The ministry spoke with Indigenous communities to find out what they needed to fight COVID-19, relayed those needs to other ministries and coordinated the government’s response, the auditor said. Her report called that a “contrast” to the ministry’s approach to other issues.
Ontario’s auditor general is an independent officer of the legislature who audits government programs to identify problems and wasteful spending.
Her 2020 annual reports, filed Monday, identified a host of issues with the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs related to its basic functioning, lack of engagement with Indigenous communities, funding models and “conflicting” roles in land claims settlements.
‘Ministry of Colonial Affairs’
MPP Sol Mamakwa, the NDP’s critic for Indigenous Affairs, said the report paints a picture of a “dysfunctional” government that perpetuates the status quo.
“It’s disappointing … It’s discouraging but I’m not surprised,” he told HuffPost Canada in an interview.
“You might as well call this ministry ‘the Ministry of Colonial Affairs.’”
Premier Doug Ford vowed to act on the auditor’s findings.
“We’ll have answers on all of it,” he told reporters at his daily press conference.
“I can assure you, I’m going to be going through line item by line item. Every minister’s going to be dragged into my office.”
The government held a press conference to respond to the auditor’s report Monday, but Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford wasn’t present.
The report pointed out that only 17 per cent of on-reserve households have basic internet, compared to 99 per cent of households in medium and large urban areas and 30 per cent in rural areas. This is a barrier for First Nations students and businesses, the report said.
Every minister’s going to be dragged into my office.Premier Doug Ford
The ministry couldn’t provide the auditor with a list of the government’s 140 Indigenous programs across all ministries and it only posts 11 on its website, the audit said.
“As this information had never been compiled before, ministries took up to six months to identify all relevant programs and associated funding for our Office.”
Ontario does not always consult Indigenous people when creating programs meant to benefit them, the auditor also pointed out.
“For example, lack of engagement by the Ministry of Health has resulted in Indigenous people not having access to culturally appropriate health care incorporating traditional healing and translators,” the audit said.
Ironically, the ministry did not engage Indigenous people while creating its guide to help other ministries engage Indigenous people.
The government also did not get input from Indigenous communities when it created its strategy for Indigenous Affairs in 2016.
Mamakwa said the lack of consultation prevents the government from forging a better relationship with Indigenous communities.
“There’s no trust in the government. There’s no trust in the process.”
Land claims drag on for decades
The auditor’s report also suggested Ontario revamp its approach to land claims. Land claims are claims made by Indigenous communities to assert their right to land or to seek redress when other groups inappropriately use their reserve land.
A 2007 inquiry found that land claims were “the single biggest source of frustration, distrust, and ill-feeling among [Indigenous Peoples] in Ontario,” the auditor said.
The average land claim still takes 22 years to settle.
Ontario doesn’t have an independent land claims tribunal like British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba do, so the government plays conflicting roles. It’s a defendant but also a decision-maker with the power to assess whether a claim is legitimate and decide how much financial support a community should receive for negotiation.
Our way of life comes from the land. People don’t understand that.MPP Sol Mamakwa
Mamakwa said the government needs an independent commission to handle land claims that takes into account the cultural significance of land itself.
“Our way of life comes from the land. People don’t understand that,” he said.
Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Todd Smith defended the minister and the government’s approach.
“Indigenous services and programs are obviously very, very important,” he said. “We’re committed to improving social and economic outcomes for Indigenous Peoples.”
He said his ministry is working closely with Indigenous Affairs to improve the child welfare system and to combat child trafficking.
The ministry “welcomes” the auditor’s recommendations on how it can better track programs and land claims negotiations, a spokesperson for the minister said by email.
“We continue to make substantial progress, however, we acknowledge that there are complex, systemic issues that cannot be solved overnight,” Alex Puddifant said. “There is much more to be done and improvements will require continued work from all ministries and levels of government.”