Doing the Math in Attawapiskat

EARLY IN THE week, during an interview whose topic was the relationship in Canada between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, I was asked what I would hope for “in an ideal world.” My answer was an alteration of political will, and more specific a beyond-mere-rhetoric commitment to a renewal of the relationship on the principle of mutual respect. I then felt it necessary to argue, along the lines of Theodor Herzl’s “If you will …” , that the only impediment to progress in Canada is the absence of political will.

Attawapiskat, whose already amply noted housing crisis is again in the news, has for years been a good illustration of what I mean. I could bury you in committee reports, Hansard transcripts, blog posts, editorials and commentary demonstrating the long-standing character of the present impasse. Now under third-party management, the community of 1,200 or-so was already under co-management, meaning that whatever mess there was, and is, flowered under the noses of the feds. The international embarrassment of a Red Cross intervention and a media descent upon this small James Bay Cree community forced the government into a posture meant to indicate that they had no idea but in any case knew exactly what to do.

One can gauge the character of political will by reviewing a document known as “the Attawapiskat timeline.” This rehearses the decades-long process by which Aboriginal Affairs Canada will presumably one day replace J.R. Nakogee Elementary School, built in the 1970s and found shortly after to be sitting atop a poorly conceived and leaking diesel fuel pipeline. Three years ago, a campaign was begun by then thirteen year-old Shannen Koostachin to have the new school built, already. Shannen was killed in a car accident, but her efforts continue in the form of a movement known as Shannen’s Dream. A problem since the 1980s, Attawapiskat’s need of an elementary school building goes unresolved.

The news coverage might lead you to conclude that Attawapiskat’s leaders are inept and even corrupt. Where is the transparency, and where the accountability? In fact, independent audited financial statements for the year 2010-2011 may be had here. Yesterday I heard an auditor say on the CBC that while there was a need for reporting improvements, the community’s financial health was compromised by under-resourcing. The Prime Minister has stated that 90 million dollars have gone to Attawapiskat, and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs cries foul, but no one in government bothers to explain that this is over six years and that most of this amount was to cover a wide range of programs and services having nothing to do with housing.

It may be there is no evidence I can produce to dispel the notion of some that taxpayer dollars sent to Attawapiskat (or other remote aboriginal communities) are wasted, and further that such situations are hopeless. However, I will bring to your attention a document identifying specific areas where federal improvements are needed. In a June 2011 report by the Auditor General of Canada — “Programs for First Nations on Reserves” — the leading role is played by the word Unsatisfactory. Despite this, or rather on account of it, constructive criticism is on offer.

In our view, many of the problems facing First Nations go deeper than the existing programs’ lack of efficiency and effectiveness. We believe that structural impediments severely limit the delivery of public services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living conditions on reserves. We have identified four such impediments:

- lack of clarity about service levels,
– lack of a legislative base,
– lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and
– lack of organizations to support local service delivery.

Nowhere does an auditor, or even an Auditor General, conclude from the evidence that places like Attawapiskat are awash in misused funds. What Attawapiskat does show is that underresourcing plus an undertrained workforce plus knee jerking brought on by political embarrassment plus lack of long-term vision and planning plus absence of measurable plans and policies plus an ill-informed or under-informed or even actively mis-informed public equals misery punctuated by crises. This formula (again, I submit Attawapiskat to the court) may go on for years and even decades. I am convinced that the reason is a lack of political will, the status quo being just good enough, or perhaps not quite bad enough, that those doing the political math feel it unnecessary to change course. So far their calculations have been proved correct.


Read Wayne K. Spear’s article in the Friday December 2, 2011 edition of the National Post.

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