Government “media lines” related to a critical audit of Attawapiskat First Nation included responses to anticipated questions about the length of time it took to be released and whether it was intended to discredit Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who was on a high-profile hunger strike when the report was officially released.
Communications staff within Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada rushed to prepare a news release and talking points in early January, although the audit had been completed in September, according to e-mails obtained through an access to information request by The Globe and Mail.
A series of questions and answers, e-mailed to AANDC staff on Jan. 7, the day the audit was released, include the questions, “Why are you releasing the audit now? Are you trying to discredit Spence? Are you releasing [the audit] in response to the hunger strike?”
The response, included in approved media lines, stated that “according to the department’s audit approval process, the Attawapiskat audit report was reviewed by the AANDC Audit Committee, which comprises five members from outside the public service. It was approved by the Deputy Minister in October, 2012. In order for all parties to move forward on the recommendations and to address the issues in the report, the Department has provided the results to the Attawapisakat First Nation and posted the audit report on the AANDC website. Its posting on the AANDC website reflects our commitment to transparency and accountability to Canadians.”
Other e-mails obtained under the same information request indicate at least some AANDC employees had expected the report to be released sooner. “So I guess we haven’t posted the Attawapiskat Report yet, hey?” says one e-mail, sent by an AANDC audit co-ordinator on Nov. 7.
The audit, prepared by accounting firm Deloitte and Touche, found poor record keeping, a lack of budgets and other problems relating to about $90-million in federal funding directed to the Attawapiskat between 2005 and 2011. The report’s findings heightened scrutiny and criticism of Ms. Spence. She had begun a hunger strike in Ottawa the month before, in December, to press for changes to the way Ottawa deals with native people. She ended her protest – during which she consumed tea and fish broth – on Jan. 24. At the time the audit was released, Ms. Spence called it a “distraction” aimed at discrediting her.
Asked Monday about the timing of the audit’s release, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the report was released in accordance with government guidelines. “The Attawapiskat audit was posted by AANDC under the established timelines – which was within 90 days of receipt by the department,” Andrew MacDougall said Monday in an e-mail.
Former Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan requested a “comprehensive audit” of Attawapiskat in November, 2011, following widespread publicity over poor housing conditions in the community. The resulting audit found significant problems, including lack of documentation for about 80 per cent of files reviewed by Deloitte and Touche and “no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds, including the use of funds for housing.” According to an auditor’s report now posted on the Aboriginal Affairs website, Deloitte and Touche gave its permission to post the report on Oct. 17, 2012.
E-mails show a rush to develop a news release and talking points in early January, with one e-mail sent on Jan. 3 stating, “Good afternoon – for URGENT (ASAP) approval, please. [Minister’s office] is looking for this tonight.”