MP rebukes top housing official for chronic underfunding of Prairie First Nations | CBC News

A New Democrat member of Parliament rebuked a federal housing executive on Thursday, after an audit found his organization shortchanged Prairie First Nations out of more than a quarter-billion dollars in housing cash.

Alberta MP Blake Desjarlais accused the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) of structural racism and negligence after its acting president and CEO, Michel Tremblay, struggled to explain why his organization uses decades-old census data to divvy up program money.

“The formula is based on a tripartite agreement that we’ve reached with Indigenous Services Canada and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). We have not changed the formula over the years,” Tremblay told the House of Commons public accounts committee on Thursday.

“We will look and work with our partners to come up with a new formula, but we will not, in the spirit of reconciliation, unilaterally change the formula.”

Tremblay was responding to Auditor General Karen Hogan’s recent audit of CMHC and Indigenous Services Canada’s efforts to provide First Nations communities with adequate housing.

In a March 19 report, Hogan found CMHC chronically underfunded First Nations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta by $274.3 million collectively over 14 years, by using an outdated funding model based on 2001 census data.

A home in deteriorating condition that is painted yellow.
A home in St. Theresa Point First Nation, a remote fly-in community of about 5,200 people in northeastern Manitoba. The auditor general of Canada says the federal government has underfunded housing for First Nations in the province by $60.2 million over 14 years. (Submitted by Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs)

Desjarlais, who is Métis from the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta, ridiculed the argument that the funding formula couldn’t be updated because of an existing agreement with AFN, which represents chiefs countrywide.

“To be very frank, I’m horrified and disgusted with some of the answers presented today — to use Indigenous peoples’ very valid and legitimate right to self-determination as an excuse to not update a funding formula, for example,” the MP said.

“Mr. Tremblay, sorry, I cannot accept that a government would act that way. That is one of the most nefarious and deceitful things a bureaucracy could do to hurt a population.”

Tremblay confirmed the corporation would work to update the formula when Desjarlais pressed further.

Among other things, the audit found CMHC and ISC have made little progress improving access to housing in First Nations and were at high risk of not closing the housing gap by 2030, the Trudeau government’s stated target.

Earlier this week, the AFN released a report estimating it would cost $350-billion to fulfil that pledge, of which $135.1 billion is connected to the acute housing deficit.

After that report landed, NDP MP Niki Ashton, who has several First Nations in her northern Manitoba riding, called the reported underfunding of communities in the Prairies “grotesque” and “the stuff of lawsuits.”

The CMHC boss was joined by Gina Wilson, deputy minister of Indigenous Services, and Hogan herself. Wilson said her department doesn’t use outdated funding formulas.

After tabling the report, Hogan decried a “distressing and persistent pattern of failure” at the federal level when it comes to Indigenous programs. She drove the point home again Thursday.

“This is the fourth time since 2003 that we are raising the alarm bell about unsafe and unsuitable housing in First Nations communities,” she said. 

“Adequate housing is a basic human need.”

A woman speaks at a microphone in front of a row of Canadian flags.
Auditor General of Canada Karen Hogan participates in a news conference in Ottawa on March 27, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

This put Wilson, who is a member of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., in the hot seat. 

“Indigenous Services Canada is aware of the substantial housing gap in First Nations communities,” she testified.

“We are working to address the ongoing and profound impact of a lack of suitable housing. This is a complex issue that has spanned generations.”

But Conservative MP Kelly McCauley pressed for an admission of accountability given the auditor’s findings of persistent, repeated failures in key areas.

“We take responsibility for this program,” she said.

“I take responsibility for this, yes.”

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