I still intend to get a series of posts
out clarifying issues like First Nations housing, health care,
education and so on, but I have a confession. I haven't been staying
away from the comments sections of articles about Attawapiskat.
I know. It's not healthy. There are so many racist rants and
outright ignorant responses that it can bog you down. Where do you even
begin, when the people making these comments do not seem to understand
even the bare minimum about the subject?
Well, I try to answer questions with facts. Here are some of those facts, if you're interested.
Harper said Attawapiskat got $90 million, where did it all go!?
Yes, Prime Minister Harper is apparently scratching his head
about where $90 million in federal funding to Attawapiskat has gone.
Many commentators then go on to make claims about lack of
accountability, and no one knowing what happens to the money once it is
'handed over' by the federal government.
Let's start simple.
First, please note that $90 million is a deceptive number. It refers
to federal funding received since Harper's government came into power
in 2006. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Attawapiskat received $17.6 million in federal funds.
The document linked to shows the breakdown of federal funds in case you
wanted to know how much is allocated to things like medical
transportation, education, maternal health care and so on.
Thus, $90 million refers to the total of an average of about $18 million per year in federal funding since 2006.
As an aside, you will often see the figure of $34 or $35 million in
funding given to Attawapiskat a year. This actually refers to total
revenues. As noted, federal funding was $17.6 million, and provincial
funding was $4.4 million. The community brings in about $12 million of
its own revenue, as shown here. So no, the 'government' is not giving Attawapiskat $34 million a year.
Okay fine, but where did it go?
Attawapiskat publishes its financial statements going back to 2005. If you want to know where the money was spent, you can look in the audited financial reports. This document for example provides a breakdown of all program funding.
Just getting to this stage alone proves false the claim that there is no accountability and no one knows where the money goes.
But $90 million could have built the community 360 brand new houses!!
Assuming, as Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowyk Council has stated,
that a new house costs $250,000 to build in Attawapiskat (with half of
that being transportation costs), then yes, 360 new units could have
been provided by $90 million.
However, this money was not just earmarked for the construction of new homes.
An important fact that many commentators forget (or are unaware of) is that section 91(24) of the Constitution Act of 1867 gives the Federal Crown exclusive powers over "Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians."
You see, for non-natives, the provinces are in charge of funding
things like education, health-care, social services and so on. For
example, the Province of Ontario allocated $10,730 in education funding
per non-native pupil in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
For most First Nations, particularly those on reserve, the federal
government through INAC is responsible for providing funds for native
How is this relevant?
It helps explain why the entire $90 million was not allocated to the
construction of new houses. That $90 million includes funding for
• education per pupil
• education infrastructure (maintenance, repair, teacher salaries, etc)
• health care per patient
• health care, infrastructure (clinics, staff, access to services outside the community in the absence of facilities on reserve)
• social services (facilities, staff, etc)
• infrastructure (maintenance and construction)
• a myriad of other services
These costs are often not taken into account when attempting to
compare a First Nation reserve to a non-native municipality. In fact,
many people forget that their own health-care and education are heavily
subsidized by tax dollars as well.
What's the point here?
How much money was actually allocated to housing in 2010-2011? Page 2 of Schedule A
shows us that out of the $17.6 million in federal funds, only $2
million was provided for housing. Yes, even $2 million would be enough
to eight brand new homes, if those funds were not also used to maintain
and repair existing homes. The specific breakdown of how that money
was spent is found in Schedule I.
Now, I admit I am confused about something. The Harper article states:
According to figures providing by Aboriginal Affairs, the
Attawapiskat Cree band has received just over $3 million in funds
specifically for housing and a further $2.8 million in infrastructure
money since 2006.
That is actually less than I estimated it would be, going by the
2010-2011 figures. I estimated $10 million for housing, but INAC (now
Aboriginal Affairs) is saying it was $5.8 million.
Anyway, that isn't too important. The point is, if INAC is correct,
only $5.8 million has gone towards housing for Attawapiskat. At most
that could have built the community 23 new houses, if Attawapiskat had
merely let the older houses go without any repairs or maintenance for
five years. Letting existing homes go like that is not a great
The point here is, $90 million sounds like a huge amount, but the real figures allocated to housing are much, much smaller.
Fine, they got $5.8 million for housing, surely that is enough?
Again, assuming 23 new homes were built, and all older homes were
left without maintenance and repairs, and the people in charge of
housing worked for free and there were no other costs associated with
administering the housing program, Attawapiskat would still be
experiencing a housing crisis.
It is estimated that
$84 million is needed for housing alone to meet Attawapiskat's housing
needs (you'll find those figures in a small table on the right, titled
"Attawapiskat by the numbers").
The Feds are just handing that money over and the Band does whatever it wants with it!
Many people seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that First
Nations have self-governance and run themselves freely. This is far
from the truth, but given that most Canadians are familiar with the
municipal model, the confusion is actually understandable. It isn't as
though Canada does a very good job of teaching people about the Indian
Section 61(1)(a-k) of the Indian Act details
that: "With the consent of the council of a band, the Minister may
authorize and direct the expenditure of capital moneys of the band" for
What this means is that Ministerial approval is actually a
requirement before any capital expenditures can occur on reserve. In
practice, a Band will generally pass a Band Council Resolution (BCR)
authorising a certain expenditure (say on housing), and that BCR must be
forwarded to INAC for approval.
That's right. Most First Nations have to get permission before they
can spend money. That is the opposite of 'doing whatever they want'
with the money. Bands are micromanaged to an extent unseen in nearly
any other context that does not involve a minor or someone who lacks
capacity due to mental disability.
Any claims that INAC has no control over what Bands spend their money on is false.
I would hope by now you'd ask the following question:
If INAC has to approve spending, why is Harper so confused?
There is a tendency to believe that our government officials do
things in a way that makes sense. This, despite the fact that most of
us don't actually believe this to be true. We want to believe. I know I
So upon learning that the federal government is the one in charge of
providing services to First Nations that are provided to non-natives by
the province, we might assume that the provision of these services are
administered in a comparable manner.
Not so! And it actually makes sense why not, when you think about it
for a moment. Have you ever seen a federal hospital, for example? No,
because hospitals are built, maintained, and staffed by the provinces.
Thus, when a First Nations person needs to access healthcare, they
cannot access federal infrastructure. They must access provincial
infrastructure and have the feds rather than the province pick up the
If only it were as easy as federal funding via provincial structures.
The Auditor General of Canada speaks up
The Auditor General of Canada released a report in June of this year examining Programs for First Nations on Reserve.
A similar report was published in 2006. This report identifies
deficiencies in program planning and delivery by Indian and Northern
Affairs Canada (INAC), Health Canada, the Canada Mortgage and Housing
Corporation (CMHC), and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
The reports also provide a number of recommendations to improve these
deficiencies. The 2011 report evaluated the progress made since the
2006 report, and in most areas, gave these federal agencies a failing
Don't worry, there is a point to this, stay with me.
The 2011 report has this to say:
In our view, many of the problems facing First Nations go deeper than
the existing programs' lack of efficiency and effectiveness. We believe
that structural impediments severely limit the delivery of public
services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living
conditions on reserves. We have identified four such impediments:
• lack of clarity about service levels,
• lack of a legislative base,
• lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and
• lack of organizations to support local service delivery.
I know this is going to look like mumbo jumbo at first, so let me
break it down a little for you. This will help explain why millions of
dollars of funding is not enough to actually improve the living
conditions of First Nations people, particularly those on reserve.
Lack of clarity about service levels
As explained earlier the federal government is in charge of
delivering services that are otherwise provided by the provinces to
non-natives. The Auditor General states:
"It is not always evident whether the federal government is committed
to providing services on reserves of the same range and quality as
those provided to other communities across Canada."
Shockingly, the federal government does not always have clear program
objectives, nor does it necessarily specify specific roles and
responsibilities for program delivery, and has not established measures
for evaluating performance in order to determine if outcome are actually
That's right. The federal government is not keeping track of what it
does, how it does it, or whether what it is doing works. The
auditor-general recommends the federal government fix this, pronto. How
can a community rely on these services if the federal government itself
isn't even clear on what it is providing and whether the programs are
Lack of a legislative base
"Provincial legislation provides a basis of clarity for services
delivered by provinces. A legislative base for programs specifies
respective roles and responsibilities, eligibility, and other program
elements. It constitutes an unambiguous commitment by government to
deliver those services. The result is that accountability and funding
are better defined."
The provinces all have some sort of Education Act that clearly lays
out the roles and responsibilities of education authorities, as well as
mechanisms of evaluation. There is generally no comparable federal
legislation for the provision of First Nations education, health-care,
housing and so on.
As noted by the AG, legislation provides clarity and accountability.
Without it, decision can be made on an ill-defined 'policy' basis or on
a completely ad hoc basis.
Lack of an appropriate funding mechanism
The AG focuses on a few areas here.
Lack of service standards for one. Were you aware that provincial
building codes do not apply on reserve? Some provincial laws of
‘general application' (like Highway Traffic Acts) can apply on reserve,
but building codes do not. There is a federal National Building Code,
but enforcement and inspection has been a major problem. This has been
listed as one of the factors in why homes built on reserve do not have a
similar ‘life' to those built off reserve.
Poor timing for provision of funds is another key issue. "Most
contribution agreements must be renewed yearly. In previous audits, we
found that the funds may not be available until several months into the
period to be funded." This is particularly problematic for housing
as "money often doesn't arrive until late summer, past the peak
construction period, so projects get delayed and their costs rise."
Lack of accountability.
"It is often unclear who is accountable to First Nations members for
achieving improved outcomes or specific levels of services. First
Nations often cite a lack of federal funding as the main reason for
inadequate services. For its part, INAC maintains that the federal
government funds services to First Nations but is not responsible for
the delivery or provision of these services."
The AG also refers to a heavy reporting burden put on First Nations,
and notes that the endless paperwork often is completely ignored anyway
by federal agencies.
Lack of organizations to support local service delivery
This refers once again to the fact that there are no federal school
or healthboards, no federal infrastructure and expertise. Some programs
are delivered through provincial structures, while others are provided
directly by the federal government, with less than stellar results.
As the auditor-general states, "Change is needed if meaningful
progress is to be realized." There is extreme lack of clarity about
what the federal government is doing, why, how, and whether it is at all
effective. No wonder Harper is confused!
Don't worry, the commentators aren't finished, and neither am I.
The Chief of Attawapiskat made $71,000 last year while her people live in tents!!!
Apparently we are supposed to be outraged at the excess involved here. This of course follows on the heels of a report by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation
about 'jaw-dropping' reserve salaries. It's become fashionable to rant
about Chiefs making more than premiers (though no one could make that
its salaries, travel expenses and honorariums (again, nothing being
hidden here). Chief Theresa Spense was paid $69,575 in salary and
honorariums in 2010-2011, and had $1,798 in travel expenses for a total
of about $71K.
If you are like most people, you don't spend a lot of time looking at
what public employees actually make. What number wouldn't shock you in
the absence of such context? $50,000? $32,000? I suspect any amount
would be offered as some sort of proof of... something not right.
Well okay. Why don't we take a look at some other salaries? But
first, note that Ontario Premier McGuinty made $209,000 in 2010, and
apparently over 100 public service executives made more than he did.
It is difficult to do a really accurate comparison of salaries, because Ontario's Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act
of 1996 only requires that salaries over $100,000 be reported.(in
addition, if the salaries are reported elsewhere, they are not
necessarily included in this report) However, the annual reports a fantastic resource. Here is the list
of various public sector employees making over $100K a year. I offer
this merely in order to ask... were you aware these people were making
this amount of money?
I sure wasn't. These are salaries paid by tax dollars, too. I have
no idea if the Director of Quality Services for the Municipal Property
Assessment Corporation should be paid $147,437.58 a year (sorry to
single you out, sir, I chose randomly). If this Corporation were in the
news and having financial difficulties, I have no doubt this salary
would be brought up as somehow relevant... but is it?
I don't know if it is. That's the point. I don't think the people
bringing it up know either. I haven't been able to find a source
listing the salaries of mayors of municipalities in Ontario to compare
to Chief Spense's salary. Then again, I doubt anyone would seriously
claim that if she worked for free, the housing crisis in Attawakpiskat
would be over.
The more you know...
I'm sure I'm forgetting some of the common accusations and arguments
being made about Attawapiskat on various forums and comments sections of
online news articles. I might update if necessary to address them, but
I think you now have at least a base to begin with, whether you
honestly just want to understand the situation a little better, or want
to fight those comment battles.
If you would like an on-the-ground perspective, please check out Smoke Signals from Cree Yellowlegs. (Note: A song starts playing automatically)
Above all, my relations, don't let it get you down.
You will see people call for the abolition of the Indian Act, for the
abolition of reserves and the 'assimilation' of First Nations into
'Canadian society'. You will see horrible things said about aboriginal
culture. What you will rarely see are people responding to facts.
Don't be discouraged when facts are brushed off in favour of
accusations. We do have the power to educate those around us, and even
if we can't reach the most vocal of bigots, we can reach the 'average'
Canadian who is merely unaware rather than necessarily outright hateful.
Âpihtawikosisân is Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She
currently lives in Montreal, Quebec, and is working on a BCL. Her
passions are education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller