Mark Milke

Columnist

The problem with aboriginal reserves starts with the reserves themselves

How politics is conducted on reserves across Canada and how tax dollars are spent are only part of the problem for reserve residents

Over the past month, some aboriginals and others have blocked bridges, highways and train tracks. As part of the Idle No More movement, such protests have inconvenienced travellers and stopped the transport of goods.

Insofar as protesters want to simply demonstrate they are unhappy, they have succeeded. So, too, Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence (who as I write, is still on her hunger strike in a teepee near Parliament Hill).

After all, everyone in Canada now knows about Idle No More, a 2013 version of the Occupy movement but one held in more frigid weather.

Also, Spence’s shenanigans managed to provoke a meeting between the prime minister and some native chiefs (though many, at the last moment, refused to show).

Spence also managed to get the governor-general to host what amounted to a cocktail hour.

Spence even wrote to Buckingham Palace, though in a surprisingly rare display of restraint by the chief, she didn’t demand that Queen Elizabeth II visit her tent.

Spence was a brazen choice for Idle No More backers to choose as an emblem of aboriginal suffering.

Here was someone who at best was an incompetent administrator of tens of millions of tax dollars; she was at worst, along with her partner and co-manager of the band, something else.

For the record, don’t buy the spin from some quarters that Chief Spence was a victim of a smear campaign.

While Spence was not at the helm of the Attawapiskat reserve for the entire period covered by the Deloitte & Touche audit (2005 to 2011), she was there as chief for two years that are covered by the audit, and on the band council before that.

The Deloitte & Touche report makes for interesting reading.

It notes how Attawapiskat’s council was informed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) about the sorry state of housing on the reserve.

But the band council didn’t forward the CMHC report to the department of aboriginal affairs for any potential additional action or monies. (Aboriginal affairs could not, on its own, obtain the report: it was the band’s right to keep the report private unless it chose otherwise.)

Then there is this little gem: of the $104 million provided to Chief Spence’s reserve between 2005 and 2011, $8.3 million was included for housing.

But the Attawapiskat band council spent only $3.6 million of it on that priority.

Thus, it was rich of Spence, in late 2011, or more recently from her protest site in Ottawa, to blame the federal government for not shelling out enough for housing.

So where did that missing money go?

Here’s a clue: In Attawapiskat, with 1,500 people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attawapiskat_First_Nation), the total bill for political salaries in 2011 was $607,364 (www.attawapiskat.org/financial-statements/2011-consolidated-schedule-of-salaries-honouraria-and-travel-expenditures/).

As I’ve written about before, too many native reserves in Canada pay political salaries way above what any other village or town of a similar size would pay to councillors and mayors who should be part-time and paid accordingly.

For example, in the remote Ontario township of Algonquin Highlands (halfway between Toronto and North Bay) with 2,100 people, the entire council was paid just $119,220 (www.algonquinhighlands.ca/documents/2011_Expenditure_Report_Summary.pdf) in 2011, or about one-fifth that of the money doled out to politicians in Attawapiskat.

When the Idle No More protests began, too many in the media treated Chief Spence with far too much deference.

That was bizarre, given how the abuse and misuse of tax dollars at Attawapiskat was well known in 2011 when her name first entered the news cycle.

If Chief Spence and her partner didn’t know how finances at Attawapiskat were being handled, then no one did.

More generally, how politics is conducted on reserves across Canada and how tax dollars are spent are only part of the problem for reserve residents.

Other factors include the lack of property rights. (That includes women who didn’t have any rights to matrimonial property until the Conservative government tried to rectify that – and over the opposition of some male chiefs.)

Such a lack of rights is not inconsequential in the fight to modernize reserves and move them away from fiefdom-style rule.

After all, recall how the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) in 2009 blew the whistle on political salaries on reserve.

The CTF found that 50 chiefs across Canada had salaries that surpassed the prime minister’s, and 160 chiefs had salaries that was higher than that of their respective premiers.

In other words, there are vested interests profiting from the current dysfunctional, unaccountable reserve system.

Reserves have many more problems than just their local politicians (and thankfully, there are some happy exceptions).

But protesters busily blocking commerce from taking place on bridges, roads and railway tracks across Canada, should instead start at home, with the problems created on reserve, and by those who live and rule there. •

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