Attawapiskat: await the audit – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – December 2, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

HOW does a remote native community of 2,000 people that receives $18 million a year in federal funds alone — $90 million in total since 2006 — wind up in such a wretched state? Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast is not alone among reserves in poverty, but it’s housing conditions are top of mind across Canada as winter sets in. Large families living in shacks and tents is a national disgrace.

Uninformed critics blame the band council without knowing the details. Those details will shed light where it belongs, but everyone must wait for that information before coming to conclusions.

Others say the Harper government is blaming the victim, so to speak, for taking control of local spending out of the band’s hands and ordering an audit. This examination of spending will look at where it comes from as well as where it goes. The Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development department will thus be under as much scrutiny as the band itself. This alone may prove to be the most illuminating aspect of the audit, for it could shed light on a system of bureaucracy that First Nations have long complained is too complicated and restrictive.

Still, of $90 million handed the band over five years, $28.6 million was earmarked for infrastructure, according to the department. And yet there are more than 100 people barely sheltered from the winter.
The local on-reserve population was approximately 1,500 in 2009 according to the department. It has grown by 500 in two years. At that rate, even as houses are built, families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home.

In addition to federal funds, Attawapiskat reportedly received another $4.4 million from the province in fiscal 2010-11 and earned more revenue itself, partly through an agreement with De Beers which built Ontario’s first diamond mine 90 kilometres away.

De Beers’ Victor Mine signed four community agreements with area First Nations including an impact benefit agreement with Attawapiskat in 2005.

While much of the financial arrangements within the agreement are confidential, negotiators representing the community worked to secure educational, employment and training, business development, environmental monitoring and other provisions designed to address the potential impacts to the community while ensuring increased capture of benefits from mining.

Citing confidentiality as a reason which prevented him from identifying specific aspects of the IBA, former chief Mike Carpenter did say a one-time payment of about $14 million was made for jobs and training for positions beyond general labour.

Linda Dorrington, manager of public and corporate affairs for De Beers Canada, said the IBA also outlines an annual transfer payment from the company to the community. “It relates to profitability,” she said adding the more money De Beers makes on the project, the larger the payment will be. Neither officials from De Beers nor Carpenter would provide other specific details.

Tom Ormsby, De Beers Canada director of external and corporate affairs, said in response to questions about what the company is doing to help the housing crisis that since the start of construction, over $325 million in contracts have been awarded to solely-owned or joint-venture companies run by the community.
This year alone, he said in an email published on Netnewsledger, contracts awarded to the community total $51 million.

Clearly, there is no shortage of money at Attawapiskat. So what are the causes of so much heartache? The cost of living is horrendous and there are many expenses — health and education for starters — beyond the cost of building houses. The federal audit will detail reserve spending, but it will not answer the larger question of whether the reserve system in Canada is even sustainable anymore, at any price.