IT’S BEEN ONE YEAR since the Attawapiskat First Nation housing crisis became a widely deliberated point, and perhaps that Attawapiskat itself became a known point on the map of Canada. It thus happens that the current hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence is among other things an anniversary marker of a sort.
Into this broad category of “other things” has been injected a good deal of speculation and acrimony, abetted by instances of incurious and therefore superficial media reporting. The question, Why exactly is Ms. Spence on a hunger protest? ought to lead beyond the conspiracy theories and the unsubstantiated inferences with which I’ve become accustomed. In my travels, both in the real and virtual worlds, I’ve noted the prevailing theory that she is an overfed parasite keen to bring down Bill-C27, the “The First Nations Financial Transparency Act.” For this and the related charges of personal and political corruption no one has yet to provide evidence, and so while it is not my habit to defend politicians I feel I have to do so in the present case.
Two weeks ago John Ivison missed what in my estimation was a unique journalistic opportunity to delve into the budding back story of what is now known as the Idle No More protests. Instead of conducting interviews and probing the issues, he observed from a distance the December 4 Parliament Hill protests and produced a speculative essay on the future of Canada’s resource industry headlined “The fate of our resources is in the hands of our most disadvantaged citizens.” If such is indeed the case, then the times argue more rather than less for a getting to the bottom of things.
In more recent days Terry Pedwell of the Canadian Press has glossed the protests, in which the Spence campaign is situated, as follows:
[Protestors] are angry over a number of bills before Parliament, including one that would force First Nations to disclose their financial statements and the salaries of chiefs and councillors.
Having become curious about these very matters, I was able to find within five minutes Attawapiskat’s financial statements, as well as salaries and travel expenses. In the year ended March 31, 2011, Chief Spence herself was remunerated at $69, 579, which may seem to some an excessive number but can not be held to be an occult one. It’s also worth noting that in this fly-in community the Chief expensed only $1,798 for travel. (The journalist in me is curious about Acting Band Manager Wayne Turner’s travel expenses of $68,397, but that’s for another article.) So much for Ms. Spence protesting the forced disclosure of information which in any case has long been publicly available — and not only in her community but in many other First Nation communities beside.
A year ago I wrote several pieces on Attawapiskat. I noted at that time that John Duncan claimed not to know of the scope of the problem. One can debate the credibility of his assertion. On whatever side the truth should fall however, there attends discredit to the Minister, who must be found either to have been dishonest or poorly informed. The later findings of the federal court — that the government’s actions in imposing third-party management were “unreasonable” rather than malicious — suggest the latter.
I began by noting an anniversary, and on this theme one could produce many other discouraging installments. Ten years ago, in December 2002, the Auditor General of Canada released a report which contained a chapter entitled “Streamlining First Nations Reporting to Federal Organizations.” Here is the opening paragraph:
First Nations reporting requirements established by federal government organizations are a significant burden, especially for communities with fewer than 500 residents. We estimated that at least 168 reports are required annually by the four federal organizations that provided the most funding for major federal programs.
Last year, in June 2011, the Auditor General provided an update which noted that progress had been “unsatisfactory” and that “the federal government should consult with First Nations to review reporting requirements on a regular basis and to determine reporting needs when new programs are set up. Unnecessary or duplicative reporting requirements should be dropped.”
This business of the bloated and lugging and unilateral central bureaucracy, as well as of, when it comes to the many undertakings of Indian Affairs, the paternalistic Big Brother, is what one needs to bear in mind when apprehending the events now unfolding. It happens that I was in the Centre Block of Parliament on the blistering afternoon of Wednesday June 11, 2008, the day that Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for Canada’s Indian residential school system and spoke of “forging a new relationship.” That day, dear reader, is the hasty stitch presently coming apart.
I sat behind the Prime Minister and his wife, Laureen, in a small private ceremony after the televised speeches. Some rather high sentiments were expressed, and for a time it seemed, in the overused metaphor of that day, that a chapter of history had concluded. The nation heard a great many declarations portending new paths and relationships and outcomes, and I submit that it’s the contrast between these manufactured expectations of renewal and the same-old same-old, rather than any one piece of legislation, which motivates the Mushkegowuk Chief’s protest as well as the protests as a whole.