Underfunded, understaffed, Canada’s Indigenous Services Agency is failing to guard First Nations


Earlier this week, Canada’s auditor general reported that Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the federal department liable for coordinating emergency management services to First Nations, failed to offer Indigenous communities with adequate resources to cope with climate disasters. Based on the report, it’s likely that ISC is incurring “significant costs” to answer climate emergencies that would have been mitigated or avoided.

The report details how various shortcomings within the department have led to underfunding and understaffing, ambiguity around jurisdictional responsibility, and a scarcity of disaster preparedness that puts First Nations communities at greater risk of harm from climate disasters. Notably, the audit found the department spent nearly 4 times more on emergency recovery than emergency preparedness: for each $1 invested in mitigation, $6 might be saved in emergency response and recovery costs.


First Nations communities are 18 times more more likely to be evacuated within the wake of climate disasters than non-Indigenous communities, in accordance with a 2017 ISC study. That’s attributable to aging infrastructure, weak socioeconomic supports, homes in distant locations, and a history of communities being relocated from traditional lands to flood and wildfire-prone areas. 

Despite a similarly poor review of ISC operations in 2013, Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, said she was frustrated that the department had made no improvements in a decade. “Indigenous Services Canada still has not identified which First Nations communities most need support to administer emergencies,” Hogan said in a press conference on Tuesday. “If the department identified these communities, it could goal its investments accordingly.”

ISC has maintained a backlog of 112 eligible, unfunded projects, including constructing culverts and dikes to stop seasonal floods, that would help First Nations cope with climate disasters and reduce financial costs borne by the state. As of April 2022, 74 of those projects had been within the department’s backlog for greater than 5 years. Based on the report, with the department’s current budget it might take nearly 25 years to fund and complete those projects – barring any latest proposals.

“ISC said they couldn’t get to those projects due to funding shortfalls,” said Doreen Deveen, director of Canada’s auditor general’s office. “Until they invest more in prevention and mitigation, First Nations will proceed to be in a more vulnerable position.”

ISC can also be liable for ensuring that First Nations receive culturally appropriate resources and that service quality is comparable to similarly-sized non-Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, without defining expectations for the standard of services to First Nations, or consistently monitoring service delivery, the department has fallen wanting its expected mandates. The report also found that ISC lacked an updated emergency management plan as required under the Emergency Management Act.

Those issues, the report says, “increases the danger that some First Nations communities is not going to receive emergency services once they need them probably the most… and might result in delays in First Nations receiving supports during an emergency. Timely response is critical during emergencies because human lives and infrastructure are in danger.”

Greater than 1,300 emergencies have impacted First Nations communities within the last 13 years, leading to almost 600 evacuations affecting almost 130,000 people. The longest evacuation affected members of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, after heavy flooding in 2011. As of May of last yr, 91 residents were still unable to return home due to insufficient housing.

Patty Hajdu, Minister of Indigenous Services, acknowledged that First Nations are on the front lines of climate change and said that it can be crucial to foreground their input in emergency management planning. “Above all, this work have to be led in true partnership with First Nations and all orders of presidency, ensuring that equal participation and equitable resources can be found,” Hajdu said. 

Though the auditor general’s report offers various recommendations on methods to address these problems, none explicitly outline increased financial investment in First Nation communities. 

“Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is developing a comprehensive motion plan to further address these recommendations in order that First Nations have the tools and resources they need to organize, prevent, mitigate, and reply to disasters attributable to natural hazards, including those resulting from climate change,” said ISC spokesperson Nicolas Moquin, in an email. “ISC acknowledges that First Nations require emergency management plans which might be up up to now and address the particular risks faced by their communities.”

Representatives of the Assembly of First Nations couldn’t be reached for comment.

For Kailea Frederick, a climate justice organizer at NDN Collective, direct access funding is a critical component of supporting Indigenous Peoples who’ve been long impacted by climate change. 

“There’s a misleading idea in global north communities that there are public programs and funding mechanisms for people,” Frederick said. “But the fact is that those agencies have been and proceed to indicate up short for Indigenous communities.”

The audit comes as world leaders meet on the U.N. climate summit, COP27, which released a draft final assessment early Thursday that made light mention of “loss and damage” funding. That funding asks industrialized countries to offer financial support to developing nations coping with the consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, funding gaps – reflected in ISC’s emergency service response to First Nations in Canada – might be further entrenched as tangible plans on climate funding have yet to be proposed. 

Frederick says that Indigenous peoples have to be included in conversations around climate finance programs to make sure that they’re designed and implemented effectively. 

“There must be [recognition] inside the federal governments within the US and Canada that Indigenous peoples and First Nations still exist and that they’re not receiving adequate support before, during or after weather related events,” Frederick said. “That has devastating consequences.”

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