THE BLOG
12/07/2011 01:04 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Why Can't Attawapiskat Help Itself?

Chief Spence wants no outside interference -- just more money and no questions asked or controls demanded. If any non-Aboriginal community were run the way Attawapiskat was run, there'd be a revolt among residents -- and the feds would long ago have cut off funding.

CP

For most of us, it's hard to justify Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence's chutzpah in banning a government-appointed manager from entering the James Bay community to assess what went wrong.

It's even harder to equate over $90 million of taxpayers' money spent on the community of 1,800 since 1996, with the housing crisis and the indignity of emergency relief supplies being flown in to curb the spreading misery.

Chief Spence seems adamant that Jacques Marion not set foot on the reserve. As the designated "third-party manager" of Attawapiskat's spending, he'll have to do it from outside the reserve, with no help from inside.

Clearly, that's an arrangement that can't work.

Some of the above impressions need clarifying: The record of third-party managers is not encouraging, and often they're accused of halting everything and being dictatorial. Hence Chief Spence's attitude. And the $90 million goes to the whole northern region, with less than five per cent earmarked for buildings in Attawapiskat -- bad, but not as outrageous as it first seems.

The immediate thought is that Chief Spence and the band council might be looting the till, as has happened in other reserves. Not so. It seems Chief Spence's salary is a modest $70,000, with a decent audit conducted on the money that comes in.

So the wretched housing conditions in Attawapiskat seem not to be linked with the sort of corruption that is endemic throughout the system. Just shoddy management.

So far, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has been restrained and reasonable. He'd like to avoid trouble. As usual.

Chief Spence accuses Marion of being "a modern-day Indian agent," and says the Harper government is trying to blame the victim for the housing crisis.

What the PM, Minister Duncan, Marion, and the Canadian public want to know, is how people can be living in shacks and tents when $90 million was spent on the region.

Chief Spence says it was $94 million, of which 6.5 per cent was designated for housing, and the rest "to support the greater economy of Northern Ontario... goods, materials, services, construction, legal advice and auditing." Hmm. Still seems a lot.

What seems obvious is that Chief Spence and the band council are incapable of running their community the way it should be run -- even though she acknowledges that on a per capita basis, everyone in Attawapiskat gets $10,000 a year from the government.

If any non-Aboriginal community were run the way Attawapiskat was run, there'd be a revolt among residents -- and the feds would long ago have cut off funding.

The "transparency and accountability" in Aboriginal funding, promised by federal legislation, is not apparent in Attawaspiskat. Or, arguably, in other First Nation communities -- which make up 20 per cent of boil water advisories in Canada.

Chief Spence wants no outside interference -- just more money and no questions asked, or controls demanded.

Her answer to wretched housing is more government involvement -- like an additional $2.5 million for housing. Does it not occur to her that if housing is so bad -- and apparently it is -- she and the band council have a responsibility to mobilize the community and help themselves?

Chief Spence sees a nearby diamond mine as contributing to problems. She told the CBC: "While they reap the riches, my people shiver in cold shacks and are becoming increasingly ill, while precious diamonds from my land grace the fingers of Hollywood celebrities and the mace of the Ontario Legislature." More handouts wanted.

No suggestion of personal responsibility or initiative, or fending for oneself.