WT Interview with Minister of Indigenous Services Canada, Hon. Patty Hajdu
Minister Responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario
WT: Three children died in a house fire in Sandy Lake recently. There are many incidents of Indigenous around house fires in the communities, many times over the average. Do you feel that your department can do more on this issue, put more money into it, can you give us a feeling about what more can be done?
Minister Hajdu: First, let me just say, what a horrific tragedy. For the family, for the community, for the leaders that are involved, this is something that is every parent’s worst nightmare. I couldn’t help but just reflect on how much recovery there will be ahead for everyone involved. I will also say, this is a reflection of the extraordinary, heightened risk that Indigenous children have of perishing in house fires. This is not new; this is something that has been recognized for a very long time. The situation is complex, it is related to housing conditions, access to critical services in communities. You are talking about WaterToday – access to functioning water systems, including the ability to use water for firefighting, and of course for communities to have appropriate staffing and firefighting capacity. It’s a tragic, tragic reminder that we are all not working fast enough in this space and that families and indeed children, the most vulnerable amongst us are paying the price for that lack of urgency.
I have asked my officials to come back to me with ideas about what we can do more quickly to protect Sandy Lake and many other communities that face these perilous situations.
WT: Reading from your own press release, “It is our collective duty to end discrimination against Indigenous peoples. This means redressing harms and ending discriminatory practices still in place today. "Could you point out a couple of examples of what discriminating practices are still in place today?
Minister Hajdu: The most vivid example and highly reported on is discriminatory funding for children in care, children in Family Services for First Nations. As you know, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) has repeatedly ruled against the federal government and repeatedly pointed out discrimination. As you know just recently, the federal government has signed an agreement in principle with a number of different parties, including Cindy Blackstock and the Caring Society, but also litigants, and various intervenors who are advocating for equity in funding, equity in support for healthier communities, that make for healthier families that can stay intact, that’s just one example.
We have a huge shortage of housing in First Nation communities, Indigenous communities, we’ve got economic development gaps, we’ve got health care gaps, this is intersecting with provinces, territories, many others but it highlights the experience of Indigenous peoples through colonization that is ongoing today.
So, when we talk about tragic history or a tragic chapter in history, I think my comments reflect the fact that there is still so much work to do, through my Department, through the provinces and territories, indeed even at the municipal level, to be more inclusive and more equitable in how we design, build and support Indigenous people in this country.
WT: This is an ongoing process; you’re doing something every day to make this better do you feel?
Minister Hajdu: I believe yes, I believe that our government started off in 2015 with a focus on reconciliation, with a commitment to reconciliation. Of course, there have been many challenges along the way and relationships take time to repair, but we have made historic investments in infrastructure, in water as you know, in many other areas where there are significant gaps. Let me just be clear though, those investments have not been sufficient to date, and there is an expectation and a duty as a federal government to work with First Nations and Indigenous partners to close those gaps more quickly. In fact, at the creation of Indigenous Services Canada department, when the department was split in two, with services in one department and Crown Indigenous Relations in another, in fact, there is a legislated obligation to table progress towards ending funding gaps by 2030 and to report on outcomes for Indigenous peoples as a result of increased investments and an increased focus on equity.
That is why we will begin to be able to better track both the inequities and the progress we are making as a country for better outcomes for Indigenous people across the country.
WT: I have talked to hundreds of chiefs over the years about water situations in the communities. Something that keeps coming up is the issue that capital cost for a new water plant is one thing, but communities keep being asked to come up with operating and maintenance money on their own and this is where the bottleneck happens. Can you speak to the gap between the capital funding of a new water plant and the lack of O & M funding to run it?
Minister Hajdu: Thank you for the question. The Parliamentary Budget Officer suggested the same, that although there are now sufficient funds dedicated by the federal government for the capital cost of renewed water infrastructure or new water infrastructure, the challenge continues to remain on the operations and maintenance side. We have made significant progress in terms of equity in funding for salaries for operators. This includes investing in the training that needs to be in place for local water operators from the communities, but there is still more to do in the equity space of the O&M fund. I would say we have done some work but we need to do more.
I look at the Atlantic Water Authority, I just met with them a couple of days ago. This is a group of individuals that represent several Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada, cooperating to create a support system for First Nations communities that can tap into the expertise and into additional personnel. In the case of water operators that are not available, there has to be someone with equivalent expertise and training who can step into those roles while the community replaces those individuals or manages those absences. Those kinds of approaches, where there is some capacity building on a regional level are also intriguing.
My commitment is to work with First Nations and Indigenous communities, both on the funding side, to increase capacity financially for them to have what they need but also to increase their capacity from a structural and assistance level to ensure they have the expertise and support they need as they go forward.
WT: If communities are in trouble right now, as some Chiefs are with their water plants around O&M, can they call your office and see if something can be done, is that acceptable?
Minister Hajdu: Absolutely.
If they are not getting the kinds of support, they need from regional managers and various ISC support people, and everyone does have contacts with the Department at their regional level, if they feel the service they are getting from regional managers is not adequate, if they feel that their issues are broader than the supports that are being offered, then absolutely they should reach out to our political office. I will just say that by and large what I get are accolades for the regional staff; just here in Ontario, the words of appreciation for how hard those staff work to support communities. Nonetheless, things can fall through the gaps, people can have misunderstandings, there can be cross-communication, so I am always interested in hearing directly from different community leaders if they are feeling that answers are not forthcoming from the Department.
WT: I talk to water start-ups and entrepreneurs in Canada daily. Almost to a person, drinking water systems come up. Canada has a strong entrepreneurial base, could these people with their new systems and new tech and new methods come to you and present their possible solutions for some of these First Nations that still have terrible water?
Minister Hajdu: You know, the people they should be selling/pitching their product to are in fact the Indigenous communities. It's not me as a Minister that will decide what the appropriate solution is for a particular community. I have met with people over my political career that come to visit me with various products or ideas to solve particular problems in Indigenous communities, but they are self-determined. So, the primary pitch should be to individual communities, or regional Tribal Councils, for the particular water challenge that the community is facing.
WT: Several First Nations have said that the communications outreach from the Department could be better, is there more you can do, people you can hire to communicate directly with communities, to up the outreach? Can you do better at communications?
Minister Hajdu: I feel that is a very generic statement. We can always do better as a Department, and myself as an individual, I have been available to Chiefs for contact in my political office, but aside from that generic concern, I would need to know more details. I do know, today, for example, I got an email on my personal ISC email from an individual about an update from the Department, so clearly, communities are getting pro-active information. I would say to anybody that feels they are not receiving the service they expect, they can call my political office. The Department will investigate why they are not getting the service. It is essential that ISC provides excellent customer service, so to speak, to the communities that we support, so I urge anyone to reach out to our political office if they need to.
WT: Have you found that your experience at running a homeless centre in Thunder Bay has helped you in your Ministerial role here?
Minister Hajdu: I think having community-level experience with suffering people has helped me as a politician, as a whole. I think the ability to understand what community members go through when they are at their most vulnerable, and how individuals can find themselves at the mercy of extremely cold systems at every level of government has really helped me in my political life, no matter what role I have held. It's taught me to hold compassion at the core of what I do and to look for solutions that are focused on making sure that the most vulnerable also have a space in our communities. I'm always grateful for that experience with the Rotary Shelter House in Thunder Bay, it introduced me on a very practical level, to individuals that I still carry with me today, in the kinds of suggestions I make and the decisions I make.
WT: Well, we appreciate what you do. Thank you for doing this Minister Patty Hajdu, thanks for doing this. Have a wonderful day.