The Commons: Tragedy of numbers

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

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.