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Attawapiskat: Following The Money
December 1, 2011
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A lot has changed in Attawapiskat since news emerged of the housing crisis facing the First Nations reserve in northern Ontario last week. Although the situation remains similar to what it was when Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in her community over a month ago, the context in which it's happening is no longer the same: In the past week alone, the Red Cross has begun airlifting relief supplies to the reserve, the federal government has put the band under third-party management, and the search to understand how $90-million in federal funding over the last five years has failed to meet the basic housing needs of a community of 2,000 has dominated the Canadian political discussion for the last two days.

It's not every day the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is the focus of Question Period.

One of the reasons for this surge in attention is that the situation in Attawapiskat has gone from being an incomprehensible crisis - no one can be happy to see a community in such dire straits - to a question about money: Where did the $90-million go, and who is at fault?

Predictably, that question has become political, with the Conservative government accusing the Attawapiskat band of mismanagement and corruption, and the opposition blaming the government for neglect and incompetent heartlessness.

Outside of Parliament, commentators and pundits have taken sides as well. Given the amount of money involved - some $45,000 for "every man, woman and child" in Attawapiskat, according to the PM - discussions have been heated.

SIDE ONE: ATTAWAPISKAT IS A DEMONSTRATION OF IRRESPONSIBLE SPENDING

1. In the National Post, Jonathan Kay calls for an end to the practice of shoveling money at Canada's native communities, and suggests that dismantling those as destitute as Attawapiskat as the only realistic solution (though he doubts Harper has the will to do it).

2. An editorial from the Gazette in Montreal posits that while more funding is clearly needed to help Attawapiskat, the problems in the community cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the federal government, when the reserve's leaders and residents should also be accountable for how the money was spent.

3. As for the details of that accountability, yesterday CBC News asked forensic accountant Marilyn Abate, with Rosen and Associates in Toronto, to look over the Attawapiskat band's audited statements. She said the band's lack of budgeting is "very disturbing," though suggests that the federal government should have been aware of these concerns some time ago.

SIDE TWO: $90-MILLION ISN'T AS MUCH MONEY AS THE GOVERNMENT WOULD LIKE YOU TO BELIEVE

1. NDP MP Charlie Angus has been outspoken in his view that the government needs to increase its funding to the beleaguered community. He continued to make this point in the House of Commons today, and had this to Tweet on the subject: "6500 per capita to run band. 80% of funds for education. 10% to welfare, 500 k left for housing. Real math not harper math."

2. Aaron Wherry, in Maclean's, pointed out that when the $90-million figures is broken down to account for the five-year spread, the cost of funding education and social services in the community, and the cost of infrastructure, the housing total comes to a total of $2,529.41 per person, which sounds much less incriminating than Harper's cited figure of $50,000.

3. But the analysis that really caught attention today came not from the usual voices in Canada's media, but from an Albertan Metis woman who trained as a lawyer and now lives in Montreal. On her blog, âpihtawikosisân, she addresses all of the questions she has seen leveled at Attawapiskat's leaders ever since the $90-million figure was made public this week. The blog post has gone viral, being reposted and retweeted throughout the day by people looking for some kind of explanation for how so much money could fail to go so far in a Canadian community. With links to the band's financial statements, spending programs and audit reports, the post provides a thorough look at how money is spent in Canada's native communities, and what the challenges facing First Nations administrator's are.

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