Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan grilled during Question Period


John DuncanOTTAWA – During Question Period in the House of Commons on Thursday, the issue of funding for Aboriginal programs was raised by the opposition to Minister John Duncan. The Minister was grilled over cuts to after school programs, the high costs of food in the north, and housing on northern communities.

Here is the full exchange:

Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP): Mr. Speaker, when the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development was at committee, he said the cultural connections for the aboriginal youth program was safe from cuts. However, in June, the Treasury Board froze all funding for this program. Friendship centres across the country had to close after-school programs and health, recreational and cultural programming.

Why does the minister not know what is going on in his own department?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, today I was at the Odawa Friendship Centre. I met with the national president. I met with the executive director. We are concerned about this issue. We are working with the executive director, we are at meetings this afternoon, official-to-official, and we will be realigning the program to meet our current needs for skills training development and job readiness for aboriginal youth. We are putting the train back on the tracks.

Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP): Mr. Speaker, this is National Aboriginal Day. We should be celebrating programs for youth instead of worrying about what is happening with friendship centres.

These are the programs that keep kids off the street and keep them going to school. Staff have been laid off, doors have been closed and uncertainty has grown around the cultural connections. This is a blow to the great work that friendship centres do across this country.

Why did the minister let this funding be frozen? Why did he not act before he was pressured into doing it?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, most of this programming is delivered through the friendship centres. The executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres has called our current approach the right approach. He went on to say it shows a level of understanding that if we want to do it better we need to engage the people who the program is for.

That is what we are doing.

Mr. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain (Manicouagan, NDP): Mr. Speaker, education is not the only desperate need. According to a recent study, mould in homes is a growing problem. Over half of first nations dwellings are infested with mould, which causes serious health problems. The problem has gotten worse since the current minister has been in office. His solution is to hand out brochures.

When is the minister going to take this situation seriously?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the health and safety of first nation community members is of primary concern to our government. That is why we developed, in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations, a comprehensive national strategy to address mould problems and create healthier homes in first nation societies.

Since we formed government, we have built or renovated approximately 30,000 homes on reserves. That has been growing annually, and we have done 3,000 major renovations every year.

Mr. Romeo Saganash (Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, NDP): Mr. Speaker, the reality is that education and housing problems have escalated since this minister came to office.

This winter we saw in Attawapiskat a symptom of a much larger crisis that is happening everywhere in this country. We also saw a minister completely lost, unable to do the right thing to improve the lives of people living in some of the worst conditions in this country.

Seeing that incompetence, why should aboriginal peoples trust the minister to resolve the national crisis that is striking them?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, we had a housing issue in Attawapiskat. In very short order, we put 22 new homes into that community. We had a long-standing call for a new school in Attawapiskat. That school is currently under construction. Things are moving in the right direction. We even had a petition going around the community asking for retention of the third party manager, who we took out of the community as a result of pressure from the leadership and the reduced need for the manager’s presence.

Ms. Niki Ashton (Churchill, NDP): Mr. Speaker, unprecedented protests are taking place in Inuit and northern communities across this country to protest the high cost and lack of availability of healthy foods. People are fed up with this high cost and with the government’s failure to act.

Will the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development stand here and do two things: one, recognize the government’s failure to act when it comes to providing accessible, healthy foods to northern communities and, two, show some leadership with the government and put an end to the third world living conditions that aboriginal people in Canada face today?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the NDP is full of overblown rhetoric. We have a letter that was published today from the Stanton Group. This is an Inuit-owned food retailer in the Northwest Territories. In the first year of the nutrition north program, we have seen savings of up to 35% on perishable foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, meat and eggs, savings that have been passed on to northern residents. In our experience, the nutrition north Canada program is working well. That speaks for itself.

Mrs. Carol Hughes (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, NDP): Mr. Speaker, some of those communities are having to pay at least $7 for a loaf of bread, so do not tell me that the program is working.

The government’s much-touted nutrition north program has failed to address the basic food needs of Inuit Canadians. Northern communities cannot afford these sky-high prices. Even hunted game is expensive when we factor in the cost of gas and gear. The poverty in these communities is staggering.

When will the Conservatives concentrate on northern poverty? When will the Prime Minister shuffle someone in to start managing the portfolio?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, nutrition north Canada was a program that used to subsidize air freight and now subsidizes food at the retail level, nutritious perishable food for northerners. We are spending $60 million on the program in 103 communities. The evidence is now in that we have changed eating habits so that people are choosing healthier foods. The evidence is in that the price of those foods is reduced. The program is working and these complaints are illegitimate.

Mr. Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, NDP): Mr. Speaker, the fact is that the social conditions of our first nations, Inuit and Métis people are this country’s greatest failure and, in fact, our greatest shame. The Conservatives have a blank cheque for G.I. Joe to buy all the war toys that he wants, but they cannot find any new money whatsoever to deal with the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes. Aboriginal people need a champion around the cabinet table, not another minister for managing poverty.

In the interest of National Aboriginal Day, will the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development do the honourable thing and shuffle himself out of cabinet to make room for somebody else?

Hon. John Duncan (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the current government has made incredible new investments in quality-of-life measures for first nations on reserves. We spent incredible amounts on the water and waste water systems. We injected major moneys into stimulus spending for housing on first nations reserves. We have covered the gamut. We are investing in new school infrastructure and new school programming. We have set our priorities along with collaborations with our partners, and the system is working as intended.

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