Last spring NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus, alleged that Indian and Northern Affairs were mismanaging their funding, reallocating monies from the fund to build schools for whatever they saw fit.
Though they vehemently denied the mismanagement and defended their reallocations saying that they were necessary to bail out communities amidst natural disasters with this funding, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has proven Angus wasn’t far from wrong.
“I think this document is probably the most powerful that we have had. In the internal documents that we have obtained from INAC, we have been able to confirm that the department is not acting in a public interest, they are acting as political fart catchers,” said Angus. He said INAC, in some cases, seem just to be making things up.
According to the PBO report, released on May 25, from 2003 INAC reallocated more than $100 million from school projects over a five-year period.
Integrated Capital Management Systems database showed beginning in 2006, when then Jim Prentice was in charge of INAC, only eight new schools were built. Previous to his administration, 35 new schools had been constructed on average per year (1990-2000).
Even more telling, Angus noted, only one school has been built since Chuck Strahl became the head of INAC in 2007. Angus said even that school was most likely a carry-over from Prentice’s regime.
The report also made note of how the department does not spend all of the education capitol funding allocated to them in a given year. The report said the capitol expenditures planning for the next decade is actually budgeted $169 million short of what is needed for First Nations schools. It slammed INAC as having no methodology when it comes to spending.
The PBO was called in last year on the behalf of Angus, who had concerns about problems in Cree community of Attawapiskat. Since meeting with community members, Angus has been trying to get the straight story on why Attawapiskat had been on the list to have a new school built for eight years but continuously found the project halted.
Attawapiskat’s original primary school was shut down in 2000 after a 30-year-old diesel spill, on which the school was built, was found to be toxic. The community was given portable trailers as temporary classrooms. It was a band-aid solution the federal government had little desire to resolve said Angus.
By 2007, the community was informed that Attawapiskat wasn’t going to see a new school because INAC did not have the funds. Attawapiskat was informed that there were other communities with greater hardships that were higher up on the list that would be getting schools before them. According to the PBO’s report, there was never a list to begin with.
“The report verified everything that we said and it shows that Minister Strahl not only mislead the public but that his civil servants, who are there to enact policy, acted basically as political operatives to cover his behind. The decisions that he made have deliberate major impacts on First Nations children going to schools in substandard conditions,” said Angus.
Angus described how he saw “real visceral hostility” from Strahl when he questioned him publicly about what had happened to Attawapiskat’s new school. A teenager from the school, Shannon Koostachin, faced similar hostility when she asked Strahl face-to-face about the project during last year’s National Day of Action, on Parliament Hill.
“Mr. Strahl was repeating the same thing. He said he didn’t have the money for the school and he said that right now there are worse things going on and then he just rushed out of the room,” said Koostachin, then 13, to the Nation.
The 74-page report identified that INAC has in fact not built any schools since 2006 but also how there are no systems or methodology in place to keep track of the 803 schools on First Nations reserves that they are responsible for.
According to the report, of the 803 schools, 10 are listed as closed and seven of those 10 are in Manitoba. The report also stated that only about 49% of the schools are in “good” condition. Close to 21% of all the schools are listed as “not inspected.” 19 of all the 25 schools (76%) listed in “poor” condition are in Alberta and British Columbia. More than 60% of the schools in Saskatchewan are reported as “not inspected”, while 12 of the 42 schools in Atlantic Canada are also reported as “not inspected.”
The report essentially underlined that little or no data collected from First Nations was used.
“They do not even inspect the schools, so they don’t know what the conditions are. The schools that are listed in good condition, they don’t know if they really are. It’s all based on the local INAC officer saying that it is in good condition. It does not even mean that he has been there,” said Angus.
The PBO also pointed out that INAC would need a list of objective criteria to be able to judge the condition of their assets, which is something currently not in place. Without this kind of a list, investments into maintenance do not happen due to necessity and thus the systems become dilapidated as there is no fund in place for the replacement value of those schools.
The mismanagement of INAC’s funding begs the simple question as to where is the money going?
INAC made statements in 2008 that they could not put more monies into capitol for schools because for that fiscal year their new priority had become safe drinking water and infrastructure to ensure it. What troubles Angus about this is that if any other municipality were to pull money out of a school fund it would be deemed illegal. He said if it was the reserve calling these kinds of shots, it would merit a full-scale investigation.
“As badly as INAC mismanages most of its files and deliberately under-funds these communities, what is really ugly is that INAC – the bureaucrats and the ministers – have this convenient whipping boy. They create this myth in the mind of Canadians that First Nations people cannot be trusted with their resources, that they are not accountable. They always hint at spending problems,” said Angus.
Despite this, Canada’s Auditor General pointed out in her 2008 report that the vast majority of Band-run communities are not only very accountable when it comes to managing their funds, they do so even under ultra-stringent INAC audit regulations. Imposed last year, these regulations are more rigid than those that INAC uses for its own departments.
For the next fiscal year, amid public pressure, INAC announced that they would be building 10 new schools on different reserves across Canada. Whether these schools will be the same as the projects identified in last year’s budget is unknown, just as it is unknown as to whether those projects ever even happened. According to Angus, INAC refuses to provide any information on them. The PBO’s report did not find any evidence that any new schools were in fact built last year.
“There are 10 new schools being built now, almost all of them are being built in Conservative ridings (seven out of 10). And Mr. Strahl has the nerve to tell the media that everybody knows these are the 10 schools that were identified on the list as the most in need. Attawapsikat is nowhere near this in terms of a school at risk according to Strahl. And yet the PBO shows us that there is no such thing as a list, and there is no ability to keep track of it.
“The decisions that INAC make are random and that was the word that they (PBO) used. They are ‘random’, ‘erratic’, ‘arbitrary’, and, of course, ‘open to abuse,’” said Angus.
Though the PBO report has outlined all of the failures of INAC as a department, according to Angus, it has also created a wonderful opportunity for the department to clean up its act as they now have a “blueprint” to fix it.
Strahl has already spoken out publicly claiming the numbers in the report, which were based on numbers that INAC provided and then peer-reviewed countless times by top professionals over the course of a year, were wrong and he continues to defend INAC’s spending.
As for Attawapiskat, the community has yet to get their school. The primary children are still attending classes in dilapidated trailers located next to the ruins of their old school which has since been demolished. Though the building is gone, the site itself will not be cleaned up for another year or so. The school itself served as a cap on the benzene-laden diesel spill that the school was built over and the community says there are toxins being released. The portable school-rooms are only feet away from this and children are affected said the Band Council.
“I have begun to sense that there is no shame on the planet that will work. Shame for doing a bad job, shame for mismanaging money, shame for leaving kids in really appalling conditions. One of those things I thought would trigger somebody to take responsibility, but it hasn’t. They just dug their heels in,” said Angus.