Attawapiskat Revisited

There’s an excellent article about the Attawapiskat disaster by âpihtawikosisân, a Metis blogger titled Dealing with comments about Attawapiskat. While I can’t do justice to her article, I did want to comment on it, and she kindly gave me permission to reprint it in full to do so.

My comments are indented in italics. Note that I’ve made minor edits to the original, to correct a couple of spelling errors.

Dealing with comments about Attawapiskat

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?

If anything she understates how bad the comments have been. If you read the comments on the news sites or on blogs, many of them boil down to “those lazy no good natives.”

What most people seem to forget is that Canada and the United States exist because a bunch of adventurers with guns came and pushed the original inhabitants out of their lands. The same is true of all the countries in North and South America.

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.

Here she is being politer than I would be. The Prime Minister is playing politics. He is also lying by omission. He doesn’t mention how much money the Federal Government has given to the oil companies developing the tar sands.

He also doesn’t mention how much money the government is going to waste on the F35 fighter acquisition, a topic I’ve written about before.

He is using misdirection to attempt to redirect blame for the problems that Attawapiskat has away from the Conservative Government. Admittedly part of the blame can be placed on the prior Liberal Government. Part. The Conservative Party has run the Government since the 2006 Federal Election, so they have had nearly six years to address the problems on the reserves.

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 (PDF).  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(PDF) 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.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (known colloquially as “Indian Affairs”) requires all tribes to provide audited financial statements. While the Prime Minister would not know “off the cuff” the financial status of a particular tribe or reservation, the Department does.

The Department reports to the Minister. The Minister should know of problems. The Minister is responsible for working with the bureaucracy to ensure the health and welfare of the natives.

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.

This figure might seem high, however there are several factors to be considered. Attawapiskat is in a remote area, so transportation of materials is a significant cost. And houses in the far north have to be built to withstand extremes of temperature.

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 education.

Which points out an issue. Currently you can have a reservation next to a town. The regulations and funding for the two come from different places, and are different. This makes for inefficiency.

Technically the reserve is supposed to run its own school, while it might be more economical for the reserve and the town to use the same school, with most of the same classes and teachers. Regulations for houses on the reserve are different than in the town. They are built to different specifications. Again this leads to inefficiencies. This could he addressed by allowing the reserves to adopt provincial regulations, however this common sense idea would never pass Indian Affairs.

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 things like:

  • 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.

So from the $90 Million that Prime Minister Harper was talking about, you have to deduct Education and Health Care. Now how much is left for housing?

This is why I said that the Prime Minister’s statement was political, trying to draw blame away from the current Government.

What’s the point here?

How much money was actually allocated to housing in 2010-2011?  Page 2 of Schedule A(PDF) 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 8 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.

$2 Million sounds like a lot of money to maintain homes. But you have to look at the numbers. We had to replace our furnace. That cost us $10,000.00 (which included replacing the air conditioning unit and the water heater). We’ve also had to do other work on the house, which included fixing the fences, the interior doors, light fixtures, cabinets, etc.

Our house was in good shape to begin with. The worse shape the house is in, the higher the costs to keep it liveable.

Many of the houses on the reserves are in terrible shape. So the $2 Million is not enough to keep the current houses liveable, much less provide any money to build new houses.

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 5 years.  Letting existing homes go like that is not a great strategy, however.

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”).

Note that the $84 Million is for housing alone. It doesn’t include roads, sewage, water mains, etc.

The Feds are just handing that money over and the Band does whatever it wants with it!

Many people seem to be laboring 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 Act.

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 various purposes.

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) authorizing 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 do.

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 health-care, they cannot access federal infrastructure.  They must access provincial infrastructure and have the feds rather than the province pick up the tab.

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 grade.

Failing grades for Indian and Northern Affairs in Auditor’s General reports are consistent. To the best of my memory, Indian and Northern Affairs has never once gotten a passing grade.

If any other ethnic group was affected, something would have been done.

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 met.


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 working?

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 forhousing 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 health boards, 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 meaning full 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!

Again, the Auditor General reports have consistently reported problems like this with Indian and Northern Affairs. But there has been no progress.

One has to wonder why a government which is so effective in other areas, is so ineffective in this one.

Tired yet?

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 claim here).

Attawapiskat publishes 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 (doc) 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 are 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 Attawapiskat would be over.

For that matter it could be argued that Chief Spense is one of the most effective executives out there. She has managed to somehow keep things together, despite a totally inadequate level of funding.

And she had the good sense to finally scream for help when it became clear that the level of Government which is responsible for funding her reserve was not doing so. That it caused certain people in that Government to be embarrassed isn’t her fault, though it seems that they intend to try to pin the blame on her.

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. (a song starts playing automatically so have your speakers turned down)

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 favor 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.

If in Ontario is was suggested that the Catholic schools be defunded, there would be a terrible uproar. I’m mentioning this as an equivalent.

A note to those taking the time to comment

I am trying to keep up and answer your questions, but the amount of views and comments this post is getting is unbelievable!  Wow!  Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to say a few words or ask questions!

I will try my best to get back to you as quickly as possible, but there may be delays.  Please be patient:)

Update and personal request: I wrote this article so that I could get out of the adversarial environment of the comments sections referred to.  Please help this comment section avoid descending into more of the same.  I do not want to censor people, but if your comments are only angry accusations and you show no willingness to engage in a dialogue, I am not going to give you a platform to engage in this.  Keep it classy, nitôtêmitik.


There is no simple answer to the problems on the reserves. There is however a single failure point, and that is the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The department has a long history of ineffectiveness under successive Conservative and Liberal Governments.

I’m not trying to place the blame on the bureaucrats. They can only work with what they are given, and that is far too little.

Consider Bill C-10: An Act to amend the Criminal Code (minimum penalties for offences involving firearms) and to make consequential amendment to another Act. The aim of the bill is to reduce crime. At least that is what we have been told. Unfortunately crime is already at an all time low. This bill will put more Canadians in jail, where instead of paying taxes, they will be costing taxpayer dollars.

Effectively the Harper Government is admitting we have the money, but that they aren’t willing to spend it on the Reserves.

I call that treason.


Wayne Borean

Saturday December 3, 2011


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