Some First Nations’ Financial Statements Generate More Questions Than Answers
Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike is now in week three and it has garnered far more attention than it deserves. This is not India in the 1940s and she is not Gandhi.
She is one of three chiefs of Attawapiskat, a small community 500 kms north of Timmins that came to the attention of the public last year when the deplorable living conditions in that community became public. The poverty was, and continues to be, horrific.
Part of the problem is simply the community’s location. It is isolated and remote. Food must be shipped in which makes even simple things like a pepper or bananas significantly more expensive than in the rest of Canada. Employment opportunities are limited which creates a sense of hopelessness and undermines any real motivation to get an education for future career opportunities.
There is a strong sense of family and community on the reserve and like many First Nations people, the residents of Attawapiskat are attached to the land – their land. It is where they feel safe and comfortable. The tragedy is that without dynamic leadership with vision, it is that same attachment that partly chains them to the poverty they endure.
Countries like Canada, the United States and many others in Europe regularly accept immigrants who have come seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Those people have, for whatever reasons, accepted that where they were living was not able to provide the life they wanted. In Canada, there is an expectation that people should have the right to live where they want and live to a certain standard, even if where they live cannot provide that standard.
It is at that point that there becomes an expectation that government should make up the shortfall for that choice.
We see it in parts of the Maritimes where temporary workers in the fisheries work part of the year and collect EI for the balance. In the end, it breeds a culture of dependence rather than of innovation or development. It promotes the idea of clinging to an unsustainable way of life rather than motivating people to develop new ways to prosper. Why bother when the government will provide?
In many First Nations communities, this is further exacerbated by the Indian Act, the clash between traditional ways of life and modern society and a leadership that is not necessarily qualified to lead, lacks the business and governance experience to move their communities forward and which too often, is more intent on fighting ancient battles than developing strategies to overcome new challenges.
Attawapiskat is a case in point.
This tiny community is not well-located to sustain a quality lifestyle but it is where the reserve has been located and for whatever reasons, the community is anchored there. It creates a set of unique and difficult challenges that require highly focused leadership to overcome. Looking at the financial statements for the reserve for last year. it is clear that the needed leadership is not being met.
A year ago, all hell broke loose over the abject poverty and sub-standard living conditions on the reserve and justifiably so. They were completely unacceptable in a country like Canada/ Chief Theresa Spence, along with a slew of progressive politicians and many in the media were quick to jump all over the government for its failure to prevent this. There were demands for more money, more housing, more, more more but nobody checked the books. If they had, perhaps the discussion would have been slightly different.
As their own financial statements show, the leadership of Attawapiskat was crying poor mouth while they had millions in investments and in the bank.
The population of Attawapiskat according to the last census is 1,539 people. It is by any system of measure, a small community. Nonetheless, it has no fewer than 22 paid councilors including Chief Spence or, one for every 70 people. Contrast that to the City of Toronto with a population of 2.6 million and 45 councilors including the mayor or, one for every 57,000 residents.
The size of the Attawapiskat Council seems an excessive expense for such a small community and a significant amount of over-governance for what is being accomplished on behalf of the community’s residents.
The first thing you notice when reading the financial statement is that the reserve spends almost as much on salaries ($11.2 million) as it does on program spending ($12.2 million). The second thing you notice is that the council has been very good at taking care of itself. The salary budget is increasing faster than the program spending budget.
Program spending increased by $1 million from 2010 to 2011 while the salary budget increased by almost $2 million for the same period.
This is not a circumstance that is unique to Attawapiskat and there are increasing questions about the number of band leaders earning, in some cases, significant tax-free salaries. While many on reserves live in poverty, a select few earn the equivalent of six-figure salaries after allowances are made for the tax-exemptions. It all gets explained with attempts to rationalize and justify it but in the end, it comes down to the simple fact that some live pretty comfortably while their people live in poverty.
The glaring number, however, is the year-end surplus. Despite the poverty, despite the lack of good educational facilities, programs to make food more affordable, proper housing and despite demands that the government provide more money, Attawapiskat ended fiscal 2011 with a $3 million surplus which was added to the accumulated surplus bringing it to $60 million.
Of course, it isn’t much better on our side of the issue either. Shallow politicians like Justin Trudeau meet with aboriginal leaders as he did recently with Chief Spence. They nod their head sagely, express concern and empathy but never take the time to actually look at or think about the root causes of the real issues. They blame other political parties, promise solutions which they sometimes deliver and sometimes don’t.
It is nothing but paternalistic and opportunistic pandering and in the end, it all goes round and round but nothing changes and when it stops, everyone is exactly where they started.
Overall, in 2011 this small community took in $34 million in revenue which is the equivalent of $22,000 for every man, woman and child living in Attawapiskat and it still wasn’t enough to elevate most up out of the poverty in which they live.
It is hard to wrap one’s head around the level of poverty when you look at the numbers.
How much money does it take? Why are surpluses being accumulated when there are so many obvious and serious problems on the reserve? For that matter, why is there debt when the total debt isn’t even close to the accumulated surplus? Why would the band chief refuse professional management assistance from the government that might have shown her better ways to improve life for her people?
We don’t get answers to these questions because these questions don’t get asked. Instead, many simply continue to blame government and wallow in guilt or anger about past treaty violations or old grievances rather than addressing the real and present issues on too many reserves today.
It is discouraging to see this level of poverty in a country as rich as Canada, particularly when there is so much money already available but not being used effectively to address that poverty.
Even more revealing was the audited Attawapiskat Trust. This is an investment trust on behalf of the community and it too revealed some rather surprising things.
While there is a highly romanticized image of First Nations being protectors of the land and the natural environment, the Attawapiskat Trust appears to be willing to put profit ahead of principle when it comes to its investments. We have often seen First Nations groups protesting pipelines, the oil sands and other developments they consider a threat to the natural environment but whatever their beliefs may be, it doesn’t seem to stop some from investing in the very companies they protest.
The Attawapiskat Trust currently stands at just over $8 million and it is a diversified portfolio of investments that include financial services, technology, real estate and chemicals, pipelines and oil and gas including the Oil Sands.
The Attawapiskat Trust invests in pipelines by Enbridge and Pembina. It holds shares in Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum and Halliburton. In other words, it appears that Chief Spence and her council are only too happy to make a few bucks off the very companies First Nations protest and condemn.
Personally, I don’t care who they invest their money with, I just get tired of being lectured about the evils of the very companies in which they invest.
It should be noted that there is no suggestion of malfeasance or corruption on the part of the Attawapiskat band council nor is any being implied. The issue isn’t corruption; it’s management, leadership and vision or the lack thereof.
The situation in Attawapiskat isn’t unusual; in fact, it is all too common in some First Nations’ communities. There is money but it isn’t spent wisely in many cases. There is no integrated strategy to combat poverty, employment, health care, substance abuse or any of the other issues facing many reserves today.
Instead, they tend to be top-heavy in terms of elected and non-elected leaders, many taking a generous piece of the pie in salary. Money is put into programs with the best of intentions but it is spread too thin in many cases and without long-term strategies or projected goals and outcomes. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, priorities seem disjointed when a significant amount of money is diverted from education funding to build a hockey arena and purchase an $80,000 Zamboni just to clean the ice.
In the end, it is a process that sets itself up for failure and fail it too often does, year after year.
Since writing my piece yesterday, I’ve heard from the usual chorus of people who don’t bother to look beyond a headline or two to get their information about serious issues but who despite their lack of knowledge feel quite entitled to accuse others of ignoring the facts. Every time I hear from one of these adolescent thinkers, I am reminded of why Justin Trudeau is so popular. He is just like them.
I also heard from a number of people in the First Nations community and surprisingly the majority who took the time to contact me tended to agree with what I wrote. There is clearly disagreement and discontent with the direction and management of some of the First Nations’ leadership. I would suggest that Chief Spence might have done more to help her people by looking for better ways to provide real leadership rather than trying to use a hunger strike to draw attention away from failed leadership practices..
It, along with blockades and flash mobs, is this kind of tired, shopworn activist action that has too often failed in the past and which has never advanced the agenda to bring prosperity and viability to all First Nations’ communities. Unfortunately, we keep seeing this confrontational approach repeated over and over again both at the band level and nationally with the Assembly of First Nations.
At the end of the day, while there is lots of blame to pass around to everyone and everything from government to the Indian Act, there is no question that a large part of the problem remains the leadership of the First Nations. Too often they’re quick to blame but slow to hear and respond to the real needs of their people.
Only blaming government is as pointless as blaming the people living on reserves. They, like us, are the victims of failed leadership and I doubt it will get better any time soon.
The big wheel just keeps on turning to the detriment of the people who most need forward-thinking focused leadership.
Maybe one day, people will learn that protests, blockades and hunger strikes don’t work and realize that there is a need for new thinking on all sides, especially with the leadership of First Nations – maybe one day but not, unfortunately, today it seems.
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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