One of Canada’s most desperate communities is drawing attention to a problem as old as the dominion. Many reserves exist like pockets of poverty—third-world communities that suffer a lack of basic services that other Canadians take for granted—surrounded by one of the richest countries in the world.
The reasons are many and complicated by a history of injustice and mismanagement. Some of that injustice comes from the federal government and some from within those communities themselves, though tales of corruption and nepotism on reserves are overshadowed by those of oppression, poverty, and abuse.
Fixing Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples is a complicated affair, with few clear answers to uneasy questions.
One answer some band members would like to see is greater accountability on reserves. The government hopes more accountability in First Nations communities will be a step in the right direction, but that move comes as Ontario’s Attawapiskat reserve exists in the grip of a crisis that has brought the Red Cross to intervene.
Last month, the reserve of 2,100 declared a state of emergency as over 90 people crammed into two construction portables. Others currently use buckets as toilets and live in makeshift shacks ill-equipped for the harsh winter.
The government pledged action, and dispatched officials on Monday to investigate. On Wednesday, the feds placed the community under third-party management, saying it has invested over $90 million in the reserve since 2006 as way of justifying taking over the community from the band council.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told Parliament Wednesday that the urgent health issues need immediate action. He ordered a comprehensive audit of the reserve going back five years.
The takeover highlights arguments on both sides of Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.
The bill forces Aboriginal governments to disclose to their citizens the consolidated financial statements the submit to Aboriginal Affairs, including the independent audits required to get annual funding.
The bill has received mixed responses among Aboriginal communities.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo dodged questions as to the AFN’s exact position on the bill, but issued a statement saying C-27 entrenched Ottawa’s unilateral relationship with First Nations.
“First Nations are advancing plans based on our rights and the clear principles of accountability, transparency, and achieving mutual standards,” said Atleo in the statement.
“Our people are saying that action is needed now and that the government must heed the advice of the former Auditor General Sheila Fraser to fundamentally transform the current systemic barriers to progress.”
Fraser pointed to deteriorating conditions on reserves, and the growing gap between Aboriginals and other Canadians—an issue she had highlighted repeatedly throughout her term as AG.
“In some cases, conditions have worsened since our earlier audits: the education gap has widened, the shortage of adequate housing on reserves has become more acute, and administrative reporting requirements have become more onerous,” said her last report.
Some reserves, like Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in Quebec, post their annual consolidated financial statements online for band members to review. The government wants to force other councils to do the same.
Jean-Guy Whiteduck, an administrative director at Kitigan Zibi, said that should be business as usual for all band councils. He’s not sure why the AFN seems to oppose the federal directive.
“Band members have a right to know,” he said.
But NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Linda Duncan said it is not a matter of whether the legislation is on target or not, as much as it is a question of priorities. Her party is waiting for feedback from First Nations before announcing its position on the bill, but she questions its importance compared to other issues.
“I have had hundreds upon hundreds of requests for action from First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities. And those deal with access to education, housing, safe drinking water, the matrimonial property bill, land claim settlement—every topic under the sun. I have to say in all honesty, I have never personally been asked to assist in this.”
She criticized the bill’s penalty for failure to comply: a withdrawal of federal funds from that community, effectively terminating its ability to deliver services.
“It seems a little heavy-handed, and I know that a good number of First Nation leaders are offended, because the message seems to be they’re worried that the broad-brush is saying they’re all corrupt and therefore we need this legislation.”
Kelly Block, the Conservative MP who tabled the progenitor to the current bill in the form of a private members bill in the previous Parliament, said C-27 is part of a larger government effort to address the challenges in First Nation communities.
“I had hoped that First Nations chiefs and councils would have seen this bill as an important [way] to bring accountability.”
She said the bill’s provision to cut off funding is nothing new and a power the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs already has if band councils don’t submit their financial statements. She said the new bill includes it for purposes of clarity.
Block believes the bill will attract investment to First Nations communities by providing transparency and accountability.
For Duncan however, it raises the question of where the government is going.
“Access to information is one important measure, but I think it’s incumbent upon me, as a member of Parliament, to be working alongside them in having action on their redresses that are long and outstanding in all kinds of areas—missing murdered women, settlement of long outstanding land claims, and calls for self government.”
The situation in Attawapiskat is only the latest in a string of crises that are plaguing reserves across Canada. The broader situation poses an almost insurmountable problem as relations between the feds and Aboriginal governments are complicated by the Indian Act, a host of unfulfilled treaty obligations, outstanding land claims, and social problems.
While the government says it is working on a solution, nothing as comprehensive as the Kelowna Accord under previous Prime Minister Paul Martin appears to be in the works. Worth $5 billion in funding, the accord was a series of agreements to fund social programs that was later cancelled by the Conservatives.