The Commons: Tragedy of numbers

‘The prime minister should see for himself. He should sleep in a shack in a sleeping bag.’

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. Recently returned from Attawapiskat, Nycole Turmel attempted to enlighten the Prime Minister this afternoon on the situation there. ”It’s terrible,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s worse than anything you can think of.”

She described the shacks and the tents and the trailers and moldy mattresses and the lack of heat and water. When, she wondered, staring him down, would the Prime Minister show some leadership and go see so for himself?

The Prime Minister didn’t have much more to say this than what he’d said the day before, except to say that the Aboriginal Affairs Minister would have more to say soon enough. For his own part, Mr. Harper offered his impressive-sounding number of choice. “Mr. Speaker, as I said yesterday, this is not acceptable when the government invests more than $90 million, to see such a result,” he said.

For sure, $90 million sounds impressive.

As Mr. Harper ventured yesterday, $90 million is equivalent to a little over $50,000 for “every man, woman and child” in Attawapiskat. But that $90 million—distributed over five years—includes funding for education and social services, while the current crisis specifically involves housing and shelter. Over the last five fiscal years, specific funding for housing totalled $4.3 million. That’s 2,529.41 per man, woman and child. The total funding committed by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for infrastructure in Attawapiskat over the last five years, including housing, education, water and community infrastructure comes to $26.8 million—another impressive-sounding number, but still $18 million less than the funding provided to beautify a single riding for the sake of a three-day summit two summers ago.

Is that enough? Too little? Too much? Irrelevant? Futile? Numbers are nothing without context. And here the context is voluminous and confounding and heartbreaking.

“Mr. Speaker, I will agree with the Prime Minister,” Ms. Turmel allowed at the start of her second opportunity. “You cannot just throw money and think that all problems will be resolved in Attawapiskat.” Conservatives applauded. Prematurely, as it turns out. ”It’s true that it takes a short, medium and long term plan,” she continued, proceeding to bang both fists against the desk in front of her as she lectured her counterpart. “It takes political will that has not been seen in the last 10 years. What is the Prime Minister waiting for? Where is the leadership of the Prime Minister?”

Mr. Harper attempted a vague swipe at the opposition parties for not supporting his government’s budgets and then repeated his figure of choice. Ms. Turmel switched to English and, whatever her struggles in her second language, laid into the Prime Minister. ”Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister has to take responsibility. He has to take charge,” she demanded. “It is his duty to help the people of Attawapiskat, an entire Canadian community living in Third World conditions in the Arctic cold. It is minus 22° today. That is what we see right now. The Prime Minister should see for himself. He should sleep in a shack in a sleeping bag. He would see that the sleeping bag provided by the Red Cross is not the solution. We need better. Winter is coming. Where is the action? Where is the leadership?”

The Prime Minister duly raised his voice to respond, but he had little more to say, except to promise that additional steps would soon be announced.

Thirty seconds later the Prime Minister proved prophetic when Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan stood and informed the House that the reserve would be placed under “third party management.” And with the benefit of that phrase committed to the record, Bob Rae then rose to pick up yelling where he’d left off the day before. “Mr. Speaker, the government that should be placed under third-party management is right across the way,” he charged. “It is a classic case. There are dozens of Attawapiskats right across this country. It is not the only community that is facing these conditions and these difficulties. It is the government that has to take responsibility for what has happened and not simply continue to blame the victims. The government is all hat and no cattle.”

At Mr. Rae’s opening quip, John Baird had leaned over to shout some advice down the government’s front row and, on Mr. Baird’s counsel or his own wits, the Prime Minister was prepared when he stood to respond. “This government is determined and is prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure results with those funds,” he pronounced. “By the way, that is why the people of Canada placed the Liberal Party under third party management.”

The Conservative side was delighted with this and now we were off on a debate about which government, the current one or the previous one, had most grossly failed in this regard.

“This government has put $90 million into this community,” Mr. Harper concluded, chopping his hand and pointing his index finger and attempting to finish this all on a commanding note. “On behalf of all Canadians and the ordinary members of that First Nation, this government is prepared to do what the others were not prepared to do, and that is to make sure there is good management in these communities.”

All that said and all that promised and all those numbers and all those convictions and if all that was enough, we’d probably have this figured out by now.

The Stats. Aboriginal affairs, nine questions. The environment, four questions. Infrastructure, bilingualism and Lebanon, three questions each. Taxation, crime and Service Canada, two questions each. Immigration, Ukraine, energy, the economy, the military, firearms and Canada Post, one question each.

Stephen Harper, seven answers. John Baird, five answers. Denis Lebel and Peter Kent, four answers each. John Duncan, Peter MacKay and Vic Toews three answers each. Ted Menzies and Diane Finley, two answers each. Rob Nicholson, Robert Goguen, Jason Kenney, Joe Oliver, Diane Ablonczy and Steven Fletcher, one answer each.




Browse

The Commons: Tragedy of numbers

    • And the reserve is presently under co-management with the Federal government.  The Minister claims he only heard about the problems last Thursday.  As hard as he’s trying, Harper is going to have trouble passing this buck.

      • It sounds to me like the Minister needs to be replaced as well as the bureaucrats in Aboriginal Affairs. The reserve problems have been in place for years and it sounds like the department is dysfunctional. There needs to be fresh eyes looking at the problem so that the government can develop a strategy for the long term. Money is not always the answer.

        • Until the Govt imposed the 3rd party take over, what kind of intervention was allowed?

          Jack Layton flew up there a couple of years ago,
          decided they needed sports equiptment.

          • Where did you get that Layton story from? 

          • Thin air.

          • @OE1
            Well,today on CBC Ian Capstick told of his trip there with Layton, and if that’s where he heard it, he has taken liberties with the re-telling.

          • Maybe Jack thought the kids needed something to take their minds off how much their live’s sucked….nothing wrong with that.

        • I don’t know if you want to replace everyone in Aboriginal Affairs…you might remove all the First Nations people who are workinng in the government.

          • I was not aware that aboriginals worked in the Aboriginal Affairs department. If they do then the situation is more than just dire it is repulsive. Can you imagine people of the same ancestry treating their people this way. Its disgusting.

            Watching Duncan pause during the committee hearing before he answered when he learned about the situation on the reserve was embarassing and it reeked of incompetence and I am a Conservative supporter.

      • Now he says he knew in October and seems to be blaming Charley Angus for not keeping him informed before then.  His Ministry apparently bears no responsibility for his ‘not knowing’.

    • If true this is the most worrying part of this whole mess.

  1. Break out the Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray voices …

    - We have a community in distress !!!

    - Well, who ya gonna call ???

    - The Accountants !!!

  2. Over the past two fiscal years (2009-2011), the Conservative caucus has collectively spent over $9-million on ten-percenter printing.

    • Think of the money spent on the G8

      • $9 million is a scandal. $900 million is just another damn statistic.

  3. There are alot of dots yet to be connected.

    Attawapiskat has been without a school for the past 12 years,
    Construction starts next year,
    yet tens of millions went to education and no school…for 12 years?

    The sewer backup disaster that the Chief says ate up all the funds, happened in 2009.

    The Victor Mine (90 km west of Attawapiskat First Nation)started  construction Feb 2006, Since then, over $325 million in contracts havebeen awarded to solely owned or joint venture companies run bythe community. In 2011, contracts awarded to the community total$51 million.http://www.debeerscanada.com/files_3/pdf_documents/fast_facts_vm_attfn.pdf

    This community of 2100 people has done business with Debeers for 5 years, and $325 million later, are living like this…?

    • They have a school….just nothing you’d recognize as one.

      And natives can’t get mortgages to build their own homes.

      Plus Attawapiskat has no roads….just a gravel runway

      • They cannot get mortgages because the band owns the land. If they want a mortgage, they have to get it as a ”collective” under the band.   However,  individual “first nations people” are getting mortgages in one particular band in BC. 
        As for the school….they got funds to build the school in 2000 from Jean Chretien but didn’t build it.
        Further, if you knew anything about the north, you would know that gravel roads are everywhere.

        • I’m quite familiar with the situation, thank you .

          They also have a school, but it’s been condemned, and they are currently having to use portables.

          I’m also quite familiar with the north….I said they don’t have any roads…just a gravel runway….for planes.

          • Gravel roads are “roads”….afterall what is the chief driving her “Escalade” on if not a road and how are supplies getting to the reserve.  For that matter, how are people who are employed by Debeers getting to and from the mine if there are no roads.
            Are you telling me that people fly on planes to work?

          • There are no roads going IN to Attawapaskit. You have to fly in…to a gravel runway.

            Which is why it costs $250K to build a house…all the material is flown in

            I have no idea where this ‘escalade’ thing is coming from, but you can buy one for 12K

            Yes, they are apparently flying to the mine….it is some distance away.  They do 2 weeks on, and 2 weeks off.

          • Wait Emily, you forgot to mention the “winter” roads over the ice that link Attawapaskit to other communities during the winter months.
            I watched a you-tube video on Attawapaskit and there were quite a few engineered (mobile) homes there.  I am guessing they came in on these winter roads.  I would think a double wide mobile home could be had for quite a bit less than 1/2 of $240K.  also, there were roads in the community and pretty much everyone had a newish looking vehicle.  I am guessing that the people who work at Debeers (90K away) drive to work.  I must say I did not see an Escalade but some pickup trucks and mini-vans and such.  It was an excellent video on what happened to their school in the 1970′s.  It was produced by National Geographic.

        • What band in B.C.?  I think you need to look at a map.

          • I think you need to get some manners but that isn’t going to happen….it is the Nisga band in Northeastern BC, near the Alaska border.

          • Gee I thought I was being patient with you. The Nisga’a fought a long hard battle to be self-governing. Totally different situatio

          • I am sure you did think you were being patient.  Unfortunately, you have modeled your behavior after Emily so your perspective is a tad skewed.

          • We can only strive to be as fair,  balanced and as informed as you are.

  4. When the Canadian people get an accounting for the $8 billion we spend annually then we can talk. There are only 600 reserves in Canada. The problem is systemic and has been there for many years.

    Somehow it has to be addressed but it sure isn’t to keep throwing money at the problem. The reserve system particularly in the far north is no longer feasible in the 21st century. Where is the national aboriginal leadership. Instead of being lobbyist they should start dealing with the fiscal and management problems on the various remote reserves.

    Obviously I have a great deal of sympathy for those suffering on this particular reserve and something needs to be done immediately.

    However, there is evidence of gross mismanagement by the reserve Chief and Council and I agree putting the reserve finances in the hands of an independent body is the best course of action for the longer term until matters can be sorted out.

    • I just don’t understand that when the government is already co-managing the reserve, it can be so unaware of the problems. 

      • Govt, NDP, Libs and Charlie Angus have been aware of the situation for some time.  The problem is likely the degree of intervention anyone off reserve can impose, until the 3rd party take over.

        • 3rd party intervention has always been possible.

          And reserves have been complained about forever

          • @ emily…you do realize that Atleo condemned the 3rd party intervention today?

            In a nut shell…they’re saying “you give us the money…and then give us more money…but if we don’t spend it wisely…you take the blame.”

          • Well of course he did…. if Harp wants to play the ham-fisted, heavy-handed white man …natives will help him into his Scrooge costume.  LOL

            “The Harper government has told the other communities, ‘You speak up, we will take you out.’ That is as blunt and brutal a colonial message as could be delivered,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

            ‘When the question was asked, “Where is the federal government?” they turned around, decided to attack the community leadership.’

        • I believe this is the third state of emergency in as many years – what were they waiting for?

        • The slow (very slow) road to self-government means that (while somewhat common), imposing third-party management is *not* a thing that Canada likes to do or the First Nations like having done to them. It’s really a lose-lose in the long run by often necessary in the immediate.

      • It beats me. There is something that does not make sense. Hopefully somebody will find out and get the issues fixed once and for all.

    • I am not sure you know the meaning of the word “obviously:”

      • Heh….if you don’t like my comment that’s fine but quit being  obtuse.

  5. @7ce5c5acfbe2fe517a81117688c26659:disqus  My thoughts exactly. There was one phrase that I heard from the PM. proper management. That is the problem facing many, many of the reserves. Reservation leadership living large, as they could care less about their community. It is time to force transparency, lets see where the money has gone.
    Both Gov. had a roll, lets move on, and fix the issues.

  6. What exactly is the suggestion here:  that the Federal government has not spent enough on these communities, or that the Federal government should micromanage how those funds are used within said communities?

    If the first, I’d be interested to see how these figures compare to the funds spent on non-aboriginal communities across Canada.  I’ll be surprised if the comparison is unfavorable, but please, show me my error if that’s what it is.

    If the second, what kind of racist would suggest that the Federal Government needs to manage the finances of First Nations reserves for them??

    • I’ve done a rough calculation for Toronto’s per capita spending in the follow-up article to this one.  I was surprised by the result (Before doing the calculation, I thought that the spending per capita would be higher in Attawatapiskat than Toronto, because the cost of living in remote communities is generally higher, and because of the well-documented water treatment issues leading to expensive secondary problems.  I was wrong.)

      • As I mentioned in the other article you commented on, big cities have costs small communities do not.  Small communities have garbage dumps a few miles out of town that resident take their own gargage to; their is no mail delivery…everyone picks up their mail at the post office; there is a very unsophisticated water treatment facility and no transit…you have to walk to where ever it is that you are going.  Many of the roads are not even paved. There are often no street lights or lanes that require painting.  Some communities are so small they don’t have sidewalks.   I think you would be better to compare Attawatapiskat with a community like Peace River, Alberta.  Although, Peace River does have a swimming pool which would cost quite a bit to keep maintained each year and I am guessing Attawatapiskat does not.

        • Northern communities are generally much, much more expensive to live in than southern metropolises.  But your point is taken.  I really did that calculation because I thought the result would be reversed, to be honest.  I thought other people would be interested in knowing how little was spent on the reserve compared to the big city.

      • Thanks, that’s helpful. We’ll continue the discussion there, but in general I think that to get an apples-to-apples comparison we should look at similarly-sized towns in remote locations that are not on reserves, rather than comparing to Toronto.

        • Evil thought:  We should compare it to Huntsville, circa 2011. :)

  7. I for one am glad for the governments response to this. It sends a much needed message.

  8. Somebody remind me again exactly why we’re spending millions…perhaps billions…to subsidize Canadians who choose to live in remote areas with no services, no prospect of employment and no future?

    What if we spent billions more to let them live in the lap of luxury. There would still be rampant unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, high school drop outs.

    We’re not solving anything by throwing more money at people and communities which have no future. It’s a bottomless pit of expense and heartache.

    • Thanks for posting that.  Hopefully everyone will read it.

    • Yes, thank-you. I’ll be sending that link out to a number of people

    • Excellent link, Holly Stick!

      • Now if some people would read it…

  9. This is absolutely depressing.  The police should go in and clear the Occupy Attawapiskat shacks! (Sarcasm)

  10. “…this government is prepared to do what others were not…”  …just not today or until I’m done trying to change the narrative to blame the party who is not in power. Sleep well steve.

  11. The Prime Minister should be up in Attawapiskat and he should be sending portable toilets, heaters, blankets by the planeload to deal with the present situation, now! Perhaps some of those warming huts being built for skaters along the Rideau Canal to the tune of $750,000 EACH could be sent to Attawapiskat. There is something morally wrong with a government that spends on these and gazebos and allows the Red Cross to do the job of looking after Canadians in dire need.  

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *