Attawapiskat’s hardships could be helped by roads – by John Ivison (National Post – December 2, 2011)

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Shawn Atleo says he wants to smash the status quo. The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations has used the phrase in a number of interviews and likely repeated it in his meeting with the Prime Minister on Parliament Hill Thursday.

But while there’s little doubt he is distressed by the pictures coming out of the troubled Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario, he doesn’t really want to overturn the present state of affairs.

Rather, he and the country’s other chiefs, a delegation of whom will meet with Stephen Harper on Jan. 24, it was announced Thursday, would like the federal government to pony up some more money — without asking too many questions about what they intend to spend it on. The chiefs tie themselves in intellectual knots, arguing that the government has been asleep at the switch on Attawapiskat, while at the same time saying the feds have gone too far by instituting an “Ottawa knows best” regime.

Any attempts by the federal government to make sure taxpayers’ money is being well spent are regarded as an unwelcome, colonialist intrusion. The imposition of third party management in Attawapiskat, after clear mismanagement by the band council (the housing budget was in surplus, despite people living in wood-frame tents), is dismissed as “the imposition of an Indian agent” by the local grand chief, Stan Louttit.

At the mention of Canada’s past shameful treatment of its First Nations, guilty-looking white politicians reach for the chequebook. In the wake of the residential school apology, in which Mr. Harper said “the policy of assimilation was wrong,” no one is going to propose changes that would really smash the status quo. Changes such as those proposed by Pierre Trudeau and his young Indian Affairs minister, Jean Chrétien, in 1969, which would have abolished the Indian Act and led to native services being delivered the same way as those received by other Canadians. The White Paper was opposed by many aboriginals because it was seen as ending their distinct status. But this was proposed in the name of equality, not assimilation — “the government believes that no one should be shut out of Canadian life,” it read.

That ship has sailed and we are left with sinking communities like Attawapiskat, where there is no hope and few jobs. The people won’t move south — the residents of nearby Kashechewan were offered the chance to flit to Timmins, at Ottawa’s expense, and turned it down. Governments of all stripes and levels feel too guilty to withdraw the funding that is the community’s lifeblood, so we are left with policy options that fall far short of smashing the status quo. The Conservatives have some good ideas on education, transparency and the restoration of aboriginal property rights.

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