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attawapiskat crisis

A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011.Adrian Wyld

Even a brief period under third-party management is too much for Attawapiskat, according to a local grand chief.

Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes the James Bay community, says the federal government imposed outside control on the band's finances with no warning and insufficient reason.

He says assurances on Thursday from the aboriginal affairs minister that the control would only last until spring don't make up for the offensive gesture.

"It doesn't matter, it could be one day of third-party manager. It's the principle of … kicking people while they're down," Mr. Louttit said in a phone interview from Moose Factory, Ont.

Band members have a hard time believing this time it will be different, he explained.

The third-party manager showed up unexpectedly "out of the blue" at the reserve while Chief Theresa Spence was in Ottawa for meetings, and in the midst of a housing crisis on the reserve, Mr. Louttit said.

"There are more respectful ways to do business. The way it happens, it ticks everybody off."

Chief Spence has filed for a court injunction to oust the overseer immediately. Mr. Louttit says she expects a ruling Monday or Tuesday.

The band has refused to co-operate with the government appointee, and is protesting against the $1,300-a-day fee, which must come out of the band's administration budget. But the appointee has already taken control of the community's government cash flow and is making financial decisions from an office off-reserve.

Minister John Duncan urged Ms. Spence to reconsider her refusal to allow federal housing officials into the community in a letter he sent Friday evening.

He also noted his office had been trying to reach the band chief to discuss renovating a Healing Lodge for temporary shelter.

"My department is on stand-by and the third party manager is ready to order the necessary materials and approve funding so that we can get to work on this immediately," he wrote.

A Canadian Red Cross assessment of the lodge requires approval from Ms. Spence and the Attawapiskat Community Control Group for renovations to move forward, he wrote.

Mr. Duncan and parliamentary secretary Greg Rickford met with her and other regional native leaders on Thursday in Thunder Bay, Ont., in an attempt to cool tempers over the issue.

They told the first nations representatives that they have a new approach to third-party management that emphasizes exit strategies and will help the band set up a solid plan.

But documents released by the federal government this week explaining the new approach suggest it is not much different from the old approach that prompted criticism from the federal auditor general, internal evaluators and chiefs across the country.

"The government continues to ignore the auditor general's reports, its own evaluation of its intervention policies, and former minister Chuck Strahl," said Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal aboriginal affairs critic, who is heading to the reserve on Saturday with interim leader Bob Rae.

"It's so-called new policy has not adopted the key recommendation that third-party management should be avoided whenever possible and when unavoidable the cost of third-party management be borne by department, not band."

The internal review recommended that third-party management be used sparingly, for reserves that are unwilling or just can't run their own affairs, or where creditors are banging down the door.

The review also said Ottawa should pick up at least part of the tab for the third-party manager.

Attawapiskat, however, is being stuck with the bill. And the band says it was in the midst of budget improvements when the third-party manager was called in.

However, the changes to the federal policy — implemented gradually over the past few months — also stress giving band members financial training, and putting together plans to graduate from third-party control.

And those aspects are part of the Attawapiskat plan, according to Mr. Rickford.

Plus, the government is imposing third-party arrangements on fewer first nations' reserves these days. Twelve bands are in third-party management now compared to 23 a year ago.

Interviews with leaders of several of those 12 bands suggest they hope to move out of government control within a year.

But many bands have spent years in trusteeship, some up to a decade. And band leaders complain that even when Ottawa changes the rules, it does little to make sure the third-party managers actually follow them.

The Canadian Press