Straight Talk
LORNE GUNTER - Gunter: Financial numbers don't make sense at Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence takes part in a news conference outside her teepee on Victoria Island in Ottawa January 4, 2013.

Credits: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE

LORNE GUNTER | QMI AGENCY

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.

But the truth about this Attawapiskat grievance is similar to the truth about the last one: The problem is not too little income, it’s what the band and chief do with the revenues they have.

As Paul Hebert, Vice-President of Government Relations for the Mining Association of Canada, told the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development last March, the DeBeers diamond mine near Attawapiskat has awarded $325 million in contracts to on-reserve companies over the past five years, including $51 million in 2011, the last year for which detailed numbers are available.

On top of that, Mr. Hebert explained, “Of the 500 employees at De Beers Victor Mine, 100 are from Attawapiskat. That’s 20% of the workforce from that one community.”

That money does not go to Chief Spence and her band council, but it is enough to start a healthy economic revival in a small community. The council in any non-aboriginal town of 1,600 would be over the moon if a new corporation came into their region and did $50 million to $75 million in spin off business with local companies. The jobs, the taxes, the local purchases would go a long way to covering the municipal government’s operating expenses.

It is interesting that the Idle No More leaders and Chief Spence want nothing to do with the Harper government’s efforts to amend the Indian Act to give elected band councils greater freedom to make contracts with off-reserve companies. Instead the Idle activists and Spence simply want more money.

But if money were the problem, aboriginal issues would all have been solved long ago.

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