December 16, 2011
The government's reaction to the events at the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat has cast a chill across Indian Country. Its tactic of blaming the victim has not been well received. It appears that future humanitarian disasters will receive the same shabby treatment.
Assembly of First Nations leader Shawn Atleo had been trying to make nice with the government, but Attawapiskat has changed that. The chiefs are angry, and Atleo must get in front of the parade if he expects to lead them. His tactic of being a conciliator and partner with the federal government has blown up in his face.
In any event, Atleo was most likely wasting his time. This is a government that doesn't know how to negotiate or compromise, and Stephen Harper is running the country as if he's been handed a blank cheque.
While Attawapiskat had serious housing and financial issues, these were overlooked with the appointment of a thirdparty manager. I imagine that the Prime Minister's Office told the colonial office to deal with the issue, and it responded with the heavy hand of third-party management.
Attawapiskat already was under a co-management agreement that placed a co-manager in charge of the band finances, and the deficit and financial control issues were being addressed. Chief and council were working to improve things.
The third-party manger was introduced after the chief and council brought international attention to their plight. The message is clear: This is a narrowminded, vindictive government, so don't step out of line.
Third-party management in reality is the imposition of an Indian agent on the First Nation. The manager sets up a separate trust account, and all of the federal funding is directed through it. The signing authority of the chief and council are stripped away, making them powerless to lead their community.
The cost to the First Nation will be $180,000 for six months of colonial control. This does not include the manager's cost of travel and other expenses, which could raise the amount to $300,000. The payment will have to come from the band's existing budget, and will mean staff layoffs.
Third-party management has a spotty record of success. Most often the situation does not improve, which indicates the underfunding of First Nations communities, rather than band mismanagement.
Most often the outside manager is quite happy to keep the gravy train rolling, and to continue to manage the books by remote control. Rather than build capacity and train band workers, they continue with their lucrative contracts. It's just too good a thing to let go.
Third-party management is a blunt instrument that places a First Nation in administrative receivership. In the case of Attawapiskat, it was used to punish the band for speaking out and calling in the Red Cross.
Chief Theresa Spence and council kicked the third-party manager out of the community, and rightly so. They saw it as an affront to their people. They needed help, but the government sent in an auditor.
As the week wore on it became apparent that Aboriginal Affairs Minster Duncan was not up to the challenge. He has no charisma. It looks as if Harper went to central casting to find an Indian Agent, and ended up with Duncan.
But as is so often the case in Ottawa these days, the PMO is running the show and it's giving free rein to the colonial office bureaucrats. Duncan is a mere passenger on a runaway train.
The Conservative government's policies in relation to First Nations lack direction and clarity. What is its end-game? Does it even know? So far, the Conservatives have focused on chiefs' salaries and election act reforms. In reality, many First Nations post their audits online, and the "band custom" option in the Indian Act allows for First Nations to enact election regulations. Many First Nations have gone the band custom route and, in the process, reduced the size of council and created a fairer election process.
The Harper government is merely catching up with reality and trying to dress it up as progress.
The old Reform party policies of accountability and privatization of First Nations land are not an end in themselves. Rather, they appear vindictive, and a way to teach Indians a lesson. These policies are getting old.
The issue that faces Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities is the development of reserve economies. Without an economic base these communities will continue to wallow in poverty and dysfunction. But as history has proved time and again, the answers must come from the communities.
We need a multi-pronged attack in First Nations country. First, we need to deal with the immediate humanitarian crisis and improve living conditions. Then we need a serious look at developing First Nations funding that's on par with provincial services such as education and welfare. Third, we need a comprehensive look at First Nations economies with action plans and financial incentives.
Will the government be proactive or will it continue to blame the victim? We could be entering the winter of our discontent, to be followed by a summer of unrest.