Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Damning audit of Aboriginal Affairs shows a department that’s deeply and intractably flawed

By John Ivison | nationalpost

Bernard Valcourt has been handed the political equivalent of the punishment meted out to Sisyphus, who was tasked with rolling an immense boulder up a hill in Hades for all eternity.

The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs not only has to appease 560 First Nations bands, who want more federal money and fewer conditions, he also has to take the rap for the worst department in government. It is an unenviable job. When the First Nations Education Bill unraveled, I remember saying that, after covering native affairs for a decade, I’d reached the considered opinion that nothing of substance would ever be achieved. Ever.

There’s plenty of blame to pass around for this tragic state of affairs. In the specific instance of the Education Bill, critics and rivals of the then-Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, turned down the opportunity of a $1.9-billion injection into native education in order to settle personal vendettas. The deal with the federal government was endorsed by AFN executive committee members in December, who then turned around and abandoned Mr. Atleo in the spring. There is no harder job in Canadian politics than herding opinion among the fractious chiefs, each of whom thinks he or she is a head of state.

Aside from the particularly poisonous nature of First Nations politics, there are structural barriers to getting anything done. Many small First Nations have the responsibilities handled elsewhere in Canada by provinces, municipalities, school boards and health boards. They have too many politicians (a councillor for every 100 people), not enough expertise and a dependency culture that discourages enterprise.

But as a report card just sneaked on to the Aboriginal Affairs website in the dead of summer makes clear, the federal department charged with improving the lot of First Nations in this country bears a large measure of responsibility for the intractability of the First Nations predicament.

The department was evaluated on the use of “performance measurement” — the collection of information to see whether results have been achieved. If it had been my son’s report card, he’d be grounded, without electronic stimulation, for a month. The department was measured on 10 criteria and got the equivalent of 2 Bs, 6 Cs and 2 Ds. The only reason Aboriginal Affairs is not at rock bottom and still digging is that the previous report two years ago was even more abysmal.

The report concluded that the department collects vast amounts of data that remains unanalyzed. Just this week, the government’s First Nation Financial Transparency Act kicked in, with chief and councillor salary information trickling in from across the country. Don’t get me wrong — this is important information that should improve accountability on reserves. But it’s not clear what the department will do with the data once it has all been published on its labyrinthine website.

This apparent agnosticism in results-based management extends to cost-efficiency. Aboriginal Affairs spends $8-billion a year but the report makes clear that cost-effectiveness is not a top priority. A more pressing concern for staff is not to be held responsible for any outcomes that they don’t control. The inevitable consequence is the construction of inflexible silos that don’t interact. “The department’s culture remains focused on transactions, funding and outputs… It lacks a comprehensive strategy to manage poor performance,” the report concluded. In other words, the focus is on getting money out of the door — there is no flexibility to see what is working and tailor programs accordingly.

Sheila Fraser, the former auditor general, noted some years back the most shocking thing about the plight of First Nations in this country is the lack of improvement. In an insightful paper on the subject, governance consultant John Graham blamed deep structural problems for the quagmire. As he pointed out, the Walkerton Inquiry heard that a minimum of 10,000 households is required to sustain a high quality provider of drinking water, yet many First Nations have just 600 people and manage their own water systems.

What the new report card from Aboriginal Affairs makes clear is that the dysfunction is not limited to First Nations. It suggests there has been little progress since a damning Institute of Governance study six years ago that suggested the department lacked leadership and purpose.

Mr. Valcourt’s office counters that the report does not include steps taken in the past year to make life better for aboriginal people, including job training for native youth, the financial transparency act, a matrimonial rights act and safe drinking water legislation.

Even so, the task that remains is indeed Sisyphean for Mr. Valcourt and his new deputy minister, Colleen Swords.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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