Canada's Auditor-General says audits of programs for First Nations, Inuit and Métis tend to get scant attention from both the media and politicians, and his staff are frustrated that so few of the problems they have uncovered are ever fully resolved.
Michael Ferguson also told a national summit that is examining the country-to-nation relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people that bureaucrats tend to run programs in ways that meet the goals of their departments, but not of the people they were meant to serve.
That is true of all departments, he said, and it is true of the civil servants handling the Indigenous files.
"Too often, what we see is government organizations managing to certain metrics, managing to certain performance measures, that matter from the point of view of the department that's delivering the program but do not matter so much from the point of view of the person receiving the program," Mr. Ferguson said on Monday, during a panel in which he was speaking with former Ontario premier Bob Rae.
A case in point, he said, is the oral-health program the federal government runs for First Nations and Inuit people at a cost of $200-million annually. An audit of that service was part of a collection of investigations released last week in Mr. Ferguson's fall report to Parliament.
It found that the goal of bureaucrats in the Indigenous Affairs department is to manage the payments for dental services used by the First Nations and Inuit people, and that they have no strategy to improve the oral health of their clients, despite knowing for many years that Indigenous people have far more dental problems than other Canadians.
"When there is a gap, and the oral health of First Nations people is twice as bad as the oral health of everybody else, the department should be monitoring the gap and trying to figure out what needs to be done in their program that will actually help to close that gap," Mr. Ferguson said.
The Auditor-General is among a number of high-profile Canadians, including former prime ministers, Indigenous leaders and cabinet ministers, to speak this week at the two-day Nation-to-Nation Summit, organized by the Institute on Governance. Mr. Rae was one of several speakers on Monday to say reconciliation with Indigenous people needs to be a much greater priority for both federal and provincial governments.
Mr. Ferguson said his office has done many studies of Indigenous programs in the six years he has been Auditor-General and they tend not to get the same amount of attention as other investigations. For instance, he said, when the audit of the oral-health program was released, only the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network wanted to interview him about it.
"I find that is pretty normal with our audits on First Nations issues. We don't end up talking about them as much," Mr. Ferguson said. In addition, he said, the same problems surface in audits of Indigenous programs. "We don't see significant improvement in many of these files, and I think that's the overall point that gets frustrating for us," he said.
Even when politicians want change, Mr. Ferguson said, the bureaucracy does not always keep up with that political will and the desires of the elected officials are not always implemented.
Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Mr. Ferguson is right in his criticisms, and the federal bureaucracy needs to be overhauled.
"We lobbied hard for investments in housing and water and infrastructure and education and $8.4-billion" that was promised for Indigenous people in last year's federal budget, Mr. Bellegarde said. "But, if they don't flow out in a very effective manner, are they really having impact on the ground?"