Posted on January 8, 2013

Whatever the Canadian State Cedes to Theresa Spence, It Will Never Be Enough

John Ivison, National Post, January 7, 2013

Theresa Spence isn’t talking. The Attawapiskat First Nation chief is fasting and she can’t talk when she’s fasting, according to her spokesman Danny Metatawabin. Why not, I wondered? It’s not as if her mouth is full.

I kept the thought to myself. Media were kept outside the stockade where Ms. Spence was “focusing on her hunger strike” by a number of burly minders.

Despite the posters proclaiming “zero tolerance to all forms of violence,” the guys barring the gate did not look they’d be dogmatic about the principle. “Friend or foe?” growled one to a native girl who was looking to gain access.

The reason for the sudden chill in media relations was the leaking by the Conservative government of an audit of Attawapiskat First Nation by accountants, Deloitte and Touche.

It suggested that Ms. Spence is not quite the “inspiration to all Canadians” that former prime minister Paul Martin, with uncanny bad timing, declared her to be Sunday.

At best, the audit paints a picture of gross mismanagement at Attawapiskat.

Mr. Metatawabin didn’t want to comment on the new report, blaming the government for trying to “undermine the process” and the media for not telling the Canadian public “the truth.”

But even in Deloitte’s dry gulch prose, it is clear that much of the blame for the housing crisis on the reserve in November, 2011, should be pinned on the chief and her council. The band received $104-million in funding between April, 2005, and November, 2011, but had an operating deficit above 8% of its total annual operating revenue. More than $8.3-million was earmarked for housing maintenance; $7.3-million was handed over in loans from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation but bookkeeping was “incomplete, insufficient and inaccurate.”

CMHC found “abnormal and accelerated” deterioration in the housing stock in 2010 and told the band but the band did not share the information with Aboriginal Affairs, according to the audit. All the agreements the band signed, including keeping up an adequate replacement reserve fund to replenish the housing stock, were ignored and money meant for maximizing the life cycle of houses on reserve was used to repay loans.

Perhaps the most damning statement made in the entire audit was that “expenditures were made without available funds.”

Think about that for a moment. The Idle No More movement has spent the past month inconveniencing Canadians in order to further “a revolution which honours and fulfills indigenous sovereignty.”

But Attawapiskat belies that myth. We have created a system that provides subsistence for no work and protects the recipients from bankruptcy. Theresa Spence and her council could authorize expenditures, regardless of available funds, because she knew that the Canadian government would bail her out in an emergency (as it did, when it sent two dozen modular homes to the reserve, at a cost of $3.75-million).

When exasperated with the apparent folly of our Indian policy, I turn to a manuscript written by Chris Burke, a Scot who has lived around Hudson and James bays for the past 45 years and who married a Cree woman.

He explains how Canada’s First Nations have figured out the right buttons to push to get the cheese. “When it comes to negotiations, this is what is going on. You are being hunted with all the skills of the accomplished hunter, who has been at it for countless generations. The hunter knows his prey intimately. He has learned its habits and limitations and is an excellent tracker. With an incredible gift for observation, he knows the right and most efficient way to make the kill for his particular quarry …. telling a sad story to create sympathy is the bait or the decoy … or if that doesn’t work, getting angry and threatening to scare your prey into the trap. Imitating the call or the habit of the quarry is replaced with imitating the language and practices of your adversary.”

The bad news is, whatever the Canadian state cedes, it will never be enough. “At best, you will only achieve a temporary respite,” said Mr. Burke.

Stephen Harper has just learned that lesson the hard way by granting Ms. Spence what she wanted, only to find out she now wants something else.

Her original demand was a meeting with the Prime Minister. She got that, but late Monday she revealed who’s next for dinner, saying in a release that she will continue her “sacred fast for change” until the government repeals its budget implementation act and introduces resource revenue sharing for First Nations.

If she does meet Mr. Harper on Friday, she should receive tea and not too much sympathy.