Skip to main content

Back in the days of Jean Chrétien's government, I recall talking to a very senior player about the issue of accountability on first nation reserves. The Canadian Alliance was probing the matter, and there were allegations, nothing too specific, about spending abuses. Money disappearing down a black hole, that kind of thing.

Raising it with the Chrétien official, I recall being surprised when he said there was a basis for many of the allegations. It was a potentially a major scandal, he said. So why, I asked, was no one probing it? Too sensitive, he said. "We'd be accused of racism."

Given the abject conditions faced by native people, it wasn't an issue the government – or many journalists, for that matter – wished to investigate. It was politically incorrect to go there.

Now with the revelation – did a member of the Harper circle leak the story? – of no documentation for millions spent at Chief Theresa Spence's Attawapiskat First Nation, the potentially explosive issue is on the table. A broiling controversy on first nations spending, one that could be broadened to include many reserves, would spell disaster. It's the last thing the first nations need at this time.

It's a different era. Native people don't have the ear of the government the way they did before. Mr. Chrétien always had a big place in his heart for them. He was the minister of Indian affairs and northern development in Pierre Trudeau's government in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and his wife, Aline, adopted a native son, Michel, at that time. Michel careened from one crisis to another – with the law, with alcohol, with employment. The Chrétiens saw the sorrows first-hand.

In the landmark 1995 budget that broke the back of the huge federal deficit, Mr. Chrétien and his finance minister, Paul Martin, spared one department from the draconian cuts: Indian affairs.

When Mr. Martin became prime minister, first nations were one of his priorities. He negotiated the Kelowna Accord, which provided major new investments for education, housing, health services, clean water and more. Although he was criticized by some as just throwing more money at the problem – the standard Liberal methodology, Conservatives charged – it was Mr. Martin's pride and joy. To his dismay, one of the first things Stephen Harper's government did was scrap the accord. But in his post-prime ministerial years, Mr. Martin, who visited the hunger-striking Chief Spence on the weekend, has devoted great amounts of time and energy to aboriginal causes.

The approaches of Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin are noted because, if leaders with such sympathies couldn't make much progress on aboriginal problems, it gives us an idea how intractable those problems are.

Mr. Harper came out of the Reform movement, which was known to take a less compassionate approach. He has been low profile on native issues, a major exception being his emotional 2008 apology for abuses suffered at residential schools. It was the NDP's Jack Layton who had prodded him on the file, eventually getting his agreement to make the move.

Under the Conservatives, first nations have not been spared budget cuts. They say the cuts have hurt badly. But even if there's more money and it's wisely spent, money isn't the solution to what ails native people. The problems, the controversies – on housing, health care, alcoholism, land claims, resource revenue, resource exploitation – are too many to count.

The Idle No More movement and Chief Spence's hunger strike have served the purpose of bringing the issues to the forefront with a Conservative government they claim has been hostile to their interests. It's hoped that a meeting with the Prime Minister on Friday will set a new working agenda for action. If that agenda is compromised or derailed by revelations of a spending scandal on the reserves, another tragic chapter in our aboriginal saga is upon us.