There’s one thing that Canada’s First Nations chiefs can say in Stephen Harper’s favour in his approach to the housing crisis at Attawapiskat; and that’s that he achieved the unlikely feat of uniting the fractious and faction-ridden group of Native leaders across the country. They are coming together in solidarity against the prime minister’s snarling, jackbooted response to a tragedy of his own government’s making. And it’s none too soon.
If there’s a thread that runs through the tortured recent history of Attawapiskat, it’s the same strand that ties together all of Native history on the continent: the dispossession of Aboriginal lands and resources.
It’s hardly an accident that this government’s first solution to the crises it has manufactured in the community is always the same. Evacuate the community. Offer to resettle residents elsewhere. Make it difficult to live on their traditional territory.
After a diesel spill contaminated the community’s school three decades ago, the federal government didn’t clean up and build a new school. It kept generations of school children in cold, vermin-ridden portables. In a bait-and-switch, successive Liberal and Conservative governments announced and then cancelled construction projects until the feds could no longer bear the international condemnation.
When flooding of a badly sited sewage treatment facility helped poison the water supply and contaminated homes in 2008, the first response by the Tory government was to tell people to move to Sudbury. Temporary housing brought in the following year is still being used today as the federal government refused to commit the funds necessary for minimally decent housing.
And after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared a housing emergency last month as many families prepared to pass the northern winter in tents? Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan claimed never to have heard about problems there. Then Duncan offers to evacuate affected families from the community. But not before the feds blame the band council for the problems his ministry refused to address. Then the Tories have the incredible gall to put the community under third-party management – essentially throwing Attawapiskat into receivership and suspending its right to democratic self-rule.
If it were a television show, we’d think this story was a farce so unbelievably incompetent and venal are the main characters representing the federal government. Unfortunately it’s a reality show. After the prime minister himself publically lied about the source of problems in Attawapiskat, it became clear that this government is not simply incompetent; it is intentionally dismantling the community.
“This government has spent some $90 million since coming to office just on Attawapiskat,” Prime Minister Harper said in the House of Commons last week. “That’s over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community. Obviously we’re not very happy that the results do not seem to have been achieved for that.”
The implication is that the people of Attawapiskat are pissing away federal largesse on the devil knows what, and if they’re living in tents or unheated shacks, it’s their own damn fault. Certainly, that’s flavour of the torrent of racist commentary unleashed by Harper’s statement.
Except it’s completely misleading. The federal government has not devoted $90 million to housing in Attawapiskat as Harper implied, and he knows it. He also knows that every federal dollar spent in the community has to be approved by Indian Affairs.
As a remarkable piece published in the National Post by blogger Chelsea Vowel, a Cree women living in Montreal, noted, “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.”
In fact, less than $6 million has been budgeted by the federal government for Attawapiskat housing since 2006, and much of that has been necessarily spent on maintaining the existing housing stock in a region that face high construction and material costs. Meanwhile the actual need for housing would require $84 million in immediate construction, not 7% of that figure spread over five years.
Nonetheless, this is the reasoning the Harper government used to disenfranchise the people of Attawapiskat by appointing an outside third-party manager to personally direct the community’s financial affairs.
To their credit, Attawapiskat band members ordered the manager to leave the reserve after he showed up on December 5. The decision to impose third-party management has nothing to do with resolving the short-term housing crisis on her reserve, Spence said, adding that she’s preparing for funding cuts as the government appointee takes control of her band’s finances.
That’s the common history of third-party management of band councils in Canada, according to legal observer Michael Posluns. “The outside manager typically begins by freezing all the band’s accounts, and opening up an account in his own name, often at his own bank,” Poslun writes.
“He does not spend much time in the community; he may administer Attawapiskat from Timmins or from Toronto…. When he closes or freezes all the band’s accounts all the band’s programs stop. I’ve seen situations where summer employment programs, hot lunch programs, recreation programs, road maintenance and everything else that is needed to sustain a community came to a screeching half. The only person who continues to get paid is the TPM himself. Typically, he pays himself 25% of the band’s income for the period he is there.”
So why all this neglect, malicious defamation and usurpation of power? Well, what’s happening in Attawapiskat’s territory? Don’t forget what’s going on an hour down the road from the community: De Beers’ brand new diamond mine is beginning to extract billions of dollars worth of resources from Cree lands. It would be better if there weren’t any pesky locals demanding a fair share of the riches being taken from their lands.
And that’s the story underlying the history of ethnic cleansing in North America. So it was a good time for AFN chiefs to take a strong stand as they did in Ottawa December 6, requesting the intervention of a United Nations special rapporteur. If there was ever a time for people to stand together, it’s now.