Reserve squalor isn’t about funding, but where the money goes – by Lorne Gunter (Toronto Sun – January 6, 2013)

Cash not the answer

Back in the fall of 2011 when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was first in the news, Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute produced a fascinating comparison of her reserve’s budget versus budgets for similar-sized non-aboriginal communities across the country.

Milke pointed out that Attawapiskat, a settlement with fewer than 1,600 residents, had an annual operating budget of nearly $32 million. Meanwhile, Atikokan, Ont., near Thunder Bay had almost 3,300 inhabitants — more than double that of Attawapiskat — and yet spent just $8.4 million providing municipal services. That’s one-quarter the budget for a town with twice the population, or $20,140 per capita in Attawapiskat versus $2,550 in Atikokan.

Spence’s complaint back then was that her reserve had too few houses for residents because Ottawa was giving it too little money. Milke’s point was that there was no shortage of funds, so the cause of Attawapiskat’s problems must lie elsewhere.

There are legitimate reasons why a reserve such as Spence’s might have to spend significantly greater amounts providing services.

For instance, while Atikokan is hardly central, Attawapiskat is truly far away from industrial civilization. What’s more, in Attawapiskat much of the employment is based on jobs created by the band government, whereas in Atikokan the private sector is the big employer. Plus the band is nearly the sole source of housing and health care.

Still, location and menu of services cannot come close to explaining the vastly greater sums spent at Attawapiskat, especially given the widespread squalor on the reserve.

Where does all that money go if not into nice homes and well-paying jobs for more than the chief and a cadre of supporters?

This time, Spence, who is on a soup-only diet in an attempt to force a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is claiming Ottawa is violating her residents’ treaty rights but not carving out for them a greater share of the resource revenues from their lands.

In her complaint, Spence has been joined by participants in the Idle No More movement and by aboriginal leaders and activists across the country.

For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Sun website: