Straight Talk
LORRIE GOLDSTEIN - Insane to keep throwing money at broken aboriginal funding template

A tattered Canadian flag flies over a teepee in Attawapiskat, December 17, 2011.



The latest aboriginal protest movement may be called Idle No More, but for most Canadians it's Business As Usual.

As usual, billions of our tax dollars are being plowed into reserves year after year and nothing ever seems to get better.

We can't even provide many with clean water.

Aboriginal unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, substance abuse, incarceration and suicide rates are a national disgrace.

Not just on reserves, but in our cities. That's the tragic part.

The farcical part is expecting any of this will start to change because of Friday's meetings featuring Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an initially reluctant Governor General David Johnston and gawd only knows which aboriginal leaders, since they often can't seem to decide among themselves. (That said, the Assembly of First Nations will be present.)

But the driving force behind this media-fuelled train wreck has been hunger-striking/liquid-dieting Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, whose conditions and demands seem to change hour by hour.

Suffice it to say a chief who left the finances of her poverty-stricken reserve in chaos - and who has become the spiritual queen of protesters blockading rail lines and highways - probably isn't the best person to be setting the terms and conditions for this gabfest, whatever it's supposed to accomplish.

Still, as much as the Harper government would like us to believe all this could be solved if aboriginal leaders would just stop wasting our money - as indicated by the leak/release this week of an audit documenting the chaotic state of Attawapiskat's finances - the issue isn't that simple.

First, if Attawapiskat's books have been in chaos for years, why did the feds keep pouring our money into it?

Second, while Attawapiskat is a disaster area and the living conditions of its people deplorable, other reserves, such as the one run by Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C., are models of entrepreneurship and prosperity. It's unfair to paint all chiefs and bands with the same brush.

Third, politicians waste our money too - think Conservative G8 spending on gazebos, or the Liberal sponsorship scandal, or the fact no Canadian government in memory has been able to make a major capital purchase for our military without sending taxpayers screaming for the exits in terror.

So let's not pretend those accusing aboriginal leaders of blowing our money have always been models of fiscal propriety themselves.

The truth is there are many issues where there are no easy answers and Canada's tortured relationship with its aboriginal people is one of them, compounded by long-standing distrust and legal battles over treaty rights, land claims and the control of natural resources.

That said, surely the answer isn't for Ottawa to keep throwing more of our money at the broken template of aboriginal funding, fuelled by hunger strikes and illegal blockades that police and governments are too intimidated to remove, for fear of being falsely accused of racism.

That just fits the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

We could start by figuring out what a successful aboriginal policy would look like.

Is its purpose to encourage aboriginals to live on reserves, or off reserves, especially in light of the Federal Court ruling this week that Ottawa is now responsible for 600,000 Metis, non-status and off-reserve Indians?

If the goal is to do both, then how do we prevent such a policy from constantly working at cross-purposes to itself?

Finally, how will taxpayers ever know if we're getting good value for money, if no one knows what the money is for?

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