Stephen Harper and his government have decided the best way to fix the problems plaguing the remote and impoverished first nations community of Attawapiskat is to take the job of managing the town’s money out of the hands of the native government.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan announced on Wednesday that his department would send a private accounting company into the community, where the Red Cross arrived this week to deliver aid to people living in plywood shacks without adequate heat and running water.
The Prime Minister attributes Attawapiskat’s woes to the inability of its leaders to translate the millions of dollars the community receives each year, mostly from federal sources, into tangible improvements in the lives of the its 2,000 inhabitants.
“This government has made large-scale investments in this community,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons. “And this government is determined and is prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure results with those funds.”
Ottawa has given more than $90-million to Attawapiskat since 2006. There have been other sources of income as well, including $4.7-million last year from the Ontario government and $3.4-million in revenues from a first-nations-run casino in Orillia, Ont.
But people are still living in tents, sleeping on mouldy mattresses and using slop pails for toilets. Pictures of the conditions have created a national embarrassment.
Community leaders in Attawapiskat did not respond to requests for comment on the government’s plan, nor did the Assembly of First Nations. But first nations leaders, who have been fighting for increased autonomy from the federal government, are unlikely to be happy with the arrival of third-party managers in Attawapiskat.
Mr. Harper will talk one-on-one on Thursday with Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the AFN – a meeting originally expected to take place after Christmas but moved ahead because of the situation in Attawapiskat.
In addition to designating an outside company to take over the first nation’s finances, the government plans to conduct a comprehensive review to identify how money has been spent and what oversight measures have been taken over the past five years.
An audit of the community’s books that was conducted last summer found numerous irregularities in the way money was handled. One employee, for instance, was responsible for preparing the list of social assistance recipients, as well as reconciling the information and approving welfare disbursements – without appropriate oversight.
But there was no suggestion in the audit report that funds were misappropriated. And aboriginal leaders point out that nearly a third of the money that goes to Attawapiskat is for education, while just $1-million a year goes to housing. Meanwhile, they estimate that it costs $250,000 to build a new house in the remote community because of the high costs of transporting materials.
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP whose riding encompasses the community, paid a visit to Attawapiskat on Tuesday. The Conservatives’ solution, Mr. Angus said, “is to blame the community.”
When disasters occur in parts of Canada that are not on aboriginal territory, the government has not pointed fingers, Mr. Angus said. “Why are the people of Attawapiskat treated so differently?” he said in the House. “Why is it that when it’s a first nation community in distress, this government’s response is contempt?”