01/07/2012 01:45 EST | Updated 03/08/2012 05:12 EST

Tory MP Concedes Failed Attawapiskat Communications


While a crisis continues to grip families living in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat, at least one Conservative MP acknowledges there is a communications problem between the First Nations leadership and the federal government.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Conservative MP and member of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Kyle Seeback tells host Evan Solomon, "Clearly, there seems to be an issue with communication between the two."

"But what I urge them to do, is to move past that and deal with the urgent needs of the people there."

Seeback's comments come on the heels of another missive fired by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence against the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan.

In a five-page open letter dated Jan.5, Spence refutes an accusation made Thursday by Duncan that her council is obstructing the flow of cash needed to pay the community's bills by refusing to release information requested by the government-appointed third-party manager.

In her letter, Spence reminds the minister that she continues to "take exception" with the government's imposition of a third-party manager and will continue to oppose that decision through legal proceedings.

"You are trying to portray your Department, and your appointed agent BDO as the saviour of my community," wrote Spence.

"We do not need a high-priced manager to issue cheques because we are capable of issuing cheques and managing our business affairs."

Spence is demanding that $1.5-million in operational funds be released to her council so the community can continue to meet its payroll and other expenses.

"Tell me where the trust is? [Your] apparent tactic in withholding our normal operational funding is a means of forcing us to be compliant and be silent on the disparencies that exist in my First Nation due to shortfalls in your department's policies."

Grand Chief Stan Louttit, regional chief for the area that includes Attawapiskat, echoes those same sentiments.

Also in an interview with The House, Louttit tells Solomon that Duncan's decision to put the community under third-party management is "a thorn in our side."

"We do not recognize the third-party manager, and we will not provide any information that he requires," said Louttit. "We're saying that we can write cheques, we can do our own bookkeeping, we can do our own finances."

A spokesperson for Duncan's office defended the third-party manager Friday, crediting him with the purchase of 22 modular homes and for supporting efforts to retro-fit a healing lodge and trailers to be used as temporary housing.

But according to Louttit, the healing lodge is not ready to be moved in by the 25 families in need of permanent shelter.

"The healing lodge has been fixed up at about 50 per cent."

"As of Thursday, there was still some electrical work to be done," said Louttit.

When asked about the discrepancy between Duncan and Louttit's account of the facts, Seeback could only say that the minister's office had advised him that "the [Canadian] Red Cross was the project manager on the healing lodge and on Dec. 23 the project manager said that the Healing Lodge was ready to be moved in," and that the retrofit "included boilers, electrical, plumbing, and fire suppression equipment."

But Louttit insists government officials "are wrong."

"They should come to Attawapiskat and look at the treatment centre for themselves," said Louttit.

In her letter, Spence also says Prime Minister Stephen Harper "accused our First Nation of mismanaging funds and made remarks in the House that are untrue and have caused irreparable damage."

Louttit re-iterated to Solomon that both Harper and Duncan have repeatedly said that Attawapiskat "mismanaged" its funds, something he says is "not true."

Spence has agreed to comply with a comprehensive audit, and confirmed that her community is prepared to receive the federal government's audit staff the week of Jan.16.

"My Council and I welcome the results of the audit and are open to any discussions resulting there from. I say this in advance for the fear that you may use the results to smear us before the public eye without any consultation from the audit results," said Spence in her letter.