Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan won't be going to the troubled community of Attawapiskat, but he will meet the band's chief in the more neutral territory of Thunder Bay.
Mr. Duncan will meet Chief Theresa Spence in the Northern Ontario city on Thursday in an attempt to clarify the federal role in resolving the crisis on her James Bay reserve.
“I hope the minister recognizes he has to tone this down,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat. “Let's get this thing resolved.”
Both Ms. Spence and Mr. Duncan have said they want to work together to make sure families now living in tents, shacks and substandard housing can spend the winter in warm and safe lodgings.
But they are at loggerheads over Ottawa's imposition of a third-party manager to control the Cree band's finances.
Mr. Duncan “is hopeful that Chief Spence will work with our government to ensure the urgent needs of the people of Attawapiskat are addressed,” his spokeswoman Michelle Yao responded Tuesday when asked what the minister hopes to accomplish at the meeting.
Ms. Spence has said she will not co-operate with the overseer, but Ottawa has made it clear her co-operation is not necessary for the manager – Jacques Marion of BDO Canada's offices in Winnipeg – to do his job.
While Mr. Marion has not been welcomed onto the reserve, he has already bought 22 modular houses for families in need, at the request of the band.
“We urge the chief and council to be part of the solution and put the needs of the people first,” Ms. Yao said.
Still, there are rumblings of civil disobedience or legal action against Ottawa unless the federal government shows some flexibility.
“If their agenda is to level the band through third party, this will get uglier,” says a memo circulating among band members.
Mr. Angus confirmed the band is considering legal action and has started speaking to lawyers.
The federal government is supposed to follow a protocol of consultation and research before imposing third-party management on a first-nation community. Indeed, the Pikangikum First Nation – an Ojibwa community in northwestern Ontario – successfully sued the government for not following procedure for third-party management.
In the case of Attawapiskat, Ottawa gave no warning whatsoever that third-party management was to be imposed, Mr. Angus said. “The community and, I believe, the regional officials were completely blindsided.”
The chief and the minister met just last week in Ottawa, but Ms. Spence said she left with a bad taste because Mr. Duncan would not budge on third-party management.
Mr. Duncan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have said the intervention, along with a thorough audit of the past five years of spending, are necessary because Ottawa has spent $90-million on the reserve over that time and not seen satisfactory results.
Mr. Harper has bluntly accused the band of mismanagement. Ms. Spence has agreed to the audit in an attempt to prove him wrong.
The system of third-party intervention has been widely criticized by first nations, the federal auditor general and even the government's own internal auditors.
There is a growing consensus that third-party management is not properly monitored, is not cost efficient, and does not have proper mechanisms set up for troubled bands to graduate to more financial independence.
“What our audit is saying is, what's in place now is not working,” assistant auditor-general Jerome Berthelette said Tuesday in an appearance before a Senate committee. “There is no exit strategy.”
The Attawapiskat First Nation must pay the third-party manager $1,300 a day from its administration budget, for a seven-month contract.
The federal government does not expect he will stay any longer than the end of June because he was brought in only to manage the immediate needs of the families living in substandard housing, Ms. Yao said. “This was an immediate measure and is not intended to be permanent,” she said.
Still, some bands see their third-party managers stay in place for up to 10 years.