I don’t think the third party administrator would have made a difference anyway, for the immediate problem was that over an extended period the funding dedicated to housing was not sufficient to maintain existing inventory and build new homes. All a third party administrator can do is ensure that dedicated funds are spent for the purposes to which there were designated, and that was already being done by the band. The Band’s financial statements were relatively clean.
What all this kerfuffle over the third party administrator misses is that there are substantive non-financial issues that must be addressed.
Can a community of under a couple of thousand people and without any significant private sector employment economically survive in a remote area without massive subsidization far beyond that which would be acceptable in southern communities? If such massive subsidization is necessary, is the government treaty bound to provide it? If not, should it be provided anyway or should the community be left to its own devices to support itself?
In a community in which a third of the population are minors, what must be done to break the cycle of economic dependency and to reduce the teen pregnancy rate? In a community in which three quarters of the population are under 35, what are those who are healthy and in their prime actually doing each day that is constructive? To what degree has endemic binge drinking and resulting violence crippled the social fabric of the community? With a birth rate of roughly 3.6%, most kids not finishing school, and an unemployment rate somewhere around 87%, can there be anything other than a dismal future, and is in fact the community only struggling along as a breeding ground for future generations facing a similar fate?
To what degree is the community an artificial construct? It was created about 120 years ago, but did not have any sizable settlement until about 80 years ago, and has struggled with poverty all along. It is not a community that has fallen on hard times. It is a community that was artificially created without due consideration given to its economic survival.
To what degree should the economic benefits from resource extraction in the region (in Attawapiskat’s case, a De Beer’s mine) be directed to the community? Prior to the creation of the reservation, the people hunted, trapped and fished throughout the region in what is now called traditional territory. By treaty, the Band gave up that traditional territory (while retaining the right to hunt, fish and trap on it) in exchange for the reservation and certain promises of support by the government. In the sense that hunting, trapping and fishing is resource extraction, should the Band be paid on an ongoing basis for the more recent development of mining on what used to be its territory?
To the extent that money from mining does reach the community (a couple of million directly to the Band, donation of housing, and contractor’s profits and employee wages from about forty million in contracts and wages), how should it be distributed? Should mines be required to give preferential treatment to on-reserve supplier and contractors? Should quotas be established for mines hiring employees, and should job performance requirements be relaxed for Indians? Should individuals be entirely free to spend their income or accumulate assets as they chose (thus there being very nice homes and expensive vehicles in Attawapiskat standing side by side against families crowded into broken, moldy shacks), or should the Indian Act be re-drafted to permit local taxation, be it property tax, income tax, or a combination, so that the well off in a community are required to contribute to the well-being of the community. (Note that income earned off reserve by status Indians is federally and provincially taxable, income earned on reserve by a status Indians is not federally or provincially taxable, the federal portion of HST is not payable on-reserve for status Indians, and in Ontario the provincial portion of HST is waived for all status Indians, but despite all of this, the reserves have no power to tax at all – they have no power the way non-reserve communities do to tax property to support municipalities and to support school boards.)
To what degree is economic development impinged by the Indian Act formally blocking execution against secured and unsecured debt? Some banks (e.g. RBC) are getting interested in investing on reserves, but they have no way of collecting upon default, unless the debt is guaranteed by the Federal government. Liens and mortgages are essentially meaningless. This throws a bucket of water on sparks of business development, and has led to a “cash on the dash” practice when making transactions with status Indians who live on reserve.
Even if the federal Government pays off a mortgage that it has guaranteed, the reserve is then held responsible, for although individual Indians can own their own homes, the land the homes are built upon remain owned by the reserve, so the reserve ends up having to pay back the federal Government when the individual band members default on their mortgage payments. Since often bands do not have the funds to pay for such defaults, the government often appoints a third party administrator, which then charges about $150,000 per year to make cuts in the Band’s budget until the guaranteed debt is paid off, which in turn reduces the band’s ability to contribute to its own welfare both while the guaranteed debt is being paid, and in future generations which are saddled with the general debt accumulated while the guaranteed debt was being paid down.
To what degree does the very small community size lend itself to family control of the band, and thereby family control of the community’s resources? Nepotism is rife on reserves – some more than others. The best way to get a job is to get elected to council or to have relatives on council. The best way to get housing is to get elected to council or to have relatives on the council. When one family is elected, their extended family gets the new jobs and the vacated housing until another family is elected.
To what degree does the very small community size and remote location preclude any economies of scale? Doctors fly in on an occasional basis (I’m glad to say that my doctor is one of them), but most diagnostics and medical treatment must be done further south (health benefits, including medical, drug and dental are fully covered by the Federal government for status Indians). Post-secondary education requires flying out (primary/elementary and secondary education is funded by the Federal government but most remote reserved do not have high-schools (Attawapiskat’s primary/elementary school was closed due to being built on a large diesel leak and has been conducted out of over-crowed portables for the last dozen years, but it does have a new high school. ), and post-secondary education is subsidized by the Federal government for status Indians). Heavy items (vehicles, prefabricated buildings and bulk supplies including the diesel that powers the generators that provide the light and heat for most of these communities), must the shipped along winter roads that are only open for a few months each year. Anything not planned for the previous year, and all fresh produce, must be flown in. People who live on welfare cannot afford to live when there are no economies of scale and when transportation costs greatly increase the price of basic items, including food and housing.
In short, is such a community viable? Will the present pattern of the federal government providing enough to keep people from dying, but not enough to thrive, continue while the problem festers and grows? Will a massive and long term allocation of resources solve the problem, or is the very nature of a remote community without employment for its citizens doomed to failure regardless of how much money is given to it? Is a diaspora and a resulting assimilation necessary for the people of remote communities to share in the modern world, and if so, what is to be done given that these communities are absolutely not willing to do this? Conversely, is the rest of Canada willing to open its pockets further to fund remote Indian communities at a first world standard as an extension of the treaty obligations that opened the land to non-aboriginals, regardless of whether or not such funding is effective in defeating the social problems resultant from isolation, or will the rest of Canada simply say “go to school, and move to get a job, just like the rest of us.”
I wish there was a simple answer, but there is not. The one thing that is clear is that there is grinding poverty on remote reserves, and all the social and health ramifications that goes with it. The first step, in my opinion, is to get the Indian leaders and the Federal government leaders, including Stephen Harper, to communicate fully and freely with each other, and to keep at it without respite for as many years as it takes to move away from what is clearly a profoundly broken system. Let’s make this a national priority, rather than an international embarrassment. I don’t want generational grinding poverty to have a place in my Canada.