Senate QP: Indigenous issues on the floor

It was actually the second Senate ministerial QP of 2017, but I wound up missing last week’s for the McCallum/Dion farewell speeches. Alas. This week it was Carolyn Bennett’s turn to face the upper chamber and be held to account. Senator Beth Marshall started off, asking about only 12 percent of First Nations infrastructure funds being allocated. Bennett said that the regions can now approve up to $50 million without needing to get approval from the centre, but that 100 percent of the funding would be allocated and on its way out the door by the end of March. Marshall asked whether the projects would be posted on the department website so that there is some accountability, and Bennett indicated that it would be in a bit of a roundabout way, talking about the importance of water projects that would soon be announced.

Senator Dyck asked about departmental spending lapses in the face of communities in dire need of support, and the PCO report card giving the department a failing grade. Bennett noted that she some of those funds were ring-fenced for land claims settlements which is why it can’t go to other areas, and she has been working to change the department, which is moving beyond its sclerotic reputation, and which now has 30 percent Indigenous employees. Dyck asked about the rumours of a departmental program that gives bonuses for cutting back on spending to First Nations, and Bennett noted that she was not aware of any such policy.

Senator Green Raine asked about BC First Nations land claims, and businesses and ranchers are keen to have their own interests protected in the claims. Bennett said that they are looking to work with everyone in the area, and she is keen to learn more about their concerns. Green Raine wondered about fears that these people whose land values are being wiped out by land claims, and Bennett said that there was a lot of misinformation and fear, and that this was not a question of drawing lines on maps at this point.

Senator Petitclerc asked about whether the administrative structure of the department was hindering its ability to help Indigenous communities. Bennett enthusiastically talked about how excited the staff were about helping, and the kinds of things they were working on around Indigenous languages and cultures and that it was a big shift but they were moving in the right direction.

Senator Watt asked about Inuit food security issues, and Bennett said that it was a preoccupation of hers and she was listening to Northerners as they move to restructure Nutrition North, and that a report on the consultations was coming shortly. Watt thanked her for her work on the file, and Bennett took the opportunity to expound on her comments a bit more, noting that they need t decide if it’s a social programme or a fairness issue.

Senator Sinclair asked about the issue of those recent youth suicides that the department didn’t get resources out to. Bennett spoke about the legacy of child sexual abuse from residential schools in the area, and some of the ways in which they are trying to build capacity back into these communities. Sinclair asked about the review of laws affecting First Nations, and Bennett said that the scope of work was larger than anticipated but the work was now mostly in the hands of the department of Justice that were working with different Indigenous communities.

Senator Lang asked about concerns around the capacity of communities to engage with assessments for resource programmes in the Yukon, and if there might be a funding program to help them participate. Bennett replied that Yukon was a special place given the self-government agreements in place, and that they were committed to ensuring that those First Nations have the resources they need, and that she would be there in mid-March. Lang was hoping for more specifics, and Bennett couldn’t provide them off-hand but repeated assurances that the resources would be there.

Senator Boniface followed-up on Senator Sinclair’s question on the youth suicides, and wanted more answers on the short-term strategy. Bennett said that she and Minister Philpott were working together, but that band-aids don’t work and sending in people with no training could cause more harm than good, which is why they needed more consultative community plans to identify more solutions. She also spoke about the preventative value of getting more Indigenous youth connecting with the land and the water, which helps reduce the suicide rate in communities that engage in it.

Overall, Bennett was not the most verbose of ministers that we’ve seen, but for most of her answers, there really wasn’t anything new to come out of it. She hinted that some reports and announcements were due in the next few weeks, but there wasn’t much news out of this exercise. Unlike most Senate ministerial QPs that I’ve watched, this one saw more senators asking supplemental questions than before, and in at least one case, it gave Bennett the opportunity to ramble a bit more to little end.

Sartorially speaking, snaps go out to Senator David Wells for a smartly tailored dark grey suit with a crisp white shirt and a green tie, and to Senator Mobina Jaffer for a smart black jacket and skirt with one of her trademark cat broaches on her right shoulder. Style citations go out to Senator Pana Merchant for a blue jacket and skirt, the jacket with large paisley patterns and the skirt large florals with a burnt orange top, and to Senator Larry Smith for a tan jacket with a dull custard shirt and black tie and slacks.