Where Is The Money Going On First Nations Reserves?
Theresa Spence, one of three chiefs of the Attawapiskat First Nation is on a hunger strike. She is demanding a meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister and is using this action as a means to try and force that meeting. She is also demanding that the meeting be at least one to two weeks in length. She claims it is to draw attention to and to force changes to the Indian Act.
Simultaneously, a new aboriginal activist group called Idle No More has taken up the cause by falling back on the same tired old self-indulgent actions that have never worked for them in the past. Once again Canadians are being subjected to the usual demonstrations including blockades of roadways and protests in malls and other public facilities.
I have a considerable amount of sympathy for the plight of aboriginal people living on many reserves in Canada today. There are deplorable levels of poverty, high unemployment, degrading living conditions, poor water sanitation, inadequate educational facilities and higher than the national average substance abuse.
While I recognize that the Indian Act is an anachronistic piece of legislation that prevents First Nations from fully realizing their potential, it is only part of the problem and the fact that it is still in effect is as much the fault of the First Nations’ leadership as it is the federal government. While there are definitely things in the act that are paternalistic, there are also benefits that the leadership is reluctant to toss away any time soon.
What are those benefits?
- Status Indians pay no tax on any income earned on a reserve and pay no sales or consumption taxes on any products or services purchased on a reserve or which they have delivered to a reserve. A status Indian living on a reserve, for example, can purchase a new vehicle tax-free if it is delivered to them on their reserve which virtually every car dealership in the country is only too happy to do. On a $30,000 vehicle, this amounts to an approximate $4,500 saving.
- All aboriginal peoples are entitled to the same health care services available to other Canadians within the same province plus reserves receive additional health care funding including free prescription medication that is not available to but which is paid for by other Canadians.
- Aboriginal people living in Canada enjoy the same fundamental benefits as all Canadian citizens, including the Child Tax Benefit, Old Age Security, and Employment Insurance despite the fact that most do not pay into these programs in the form of income or other taxes.
- Aboriginal peoples are not bound by the same hunting and fishing regulations imposed on other Canadians and may hunt and fish out of season.
- Additional assistance is provided for post-secondary education including tuition, books and living expense subsidies and grants.
- Status Indians may move back and forth across the Canadian border without a passport or customs check.
Overall, there are approximately 1.17 million aboriginal people living in Canada or approximately 3% of the total population of the country. The annual federal budget for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the federal department responsible for aboriginal issues, is $7.4 billion. In other words, over and above the cost of the income and sales tax exemption; the normal Canadian services provided to aboriginal peoples like health care and the child tax benefit – Canada spends an additional $6,300 per year for every aboriginal man, woman and child in the country. (By comparison, Quebec which has a population of 8 million receives $18 billion in transfer payments or approximately $2,200 per capita)
Considering the amount of poverty still on too many reserves, where is the money going?
The Assembly of First Nations tries to make the case that Canadians receive more financial benefit from the federal government than aboriginal peoples but they fail on two levels.
First, Canadians pay for their healthcare and other benefits through the taxes they pay. Status Indians pay no taxes but receive those same benefits for free. Second, the AFN does not include those benefits when calculating how much contribution is made by Canadians to First Nations. They only include them when calculating what other Canadians receive.
There are lots of financial reports to wade through if you have the time. Governments love financial reports especially because the more there are the more difficult it is to figure out what is going on. First Nations band leaders are required to provide some 160 odd reports annually but despite all of that, there never seems to be a clear understanding of where the money goes.
And that, my friends brings us all the way back to Chief Spence and her hunger strike.
A year ago, Canadians were outraged by the exposure of the impoverished living conditions in Attawapiskat, Chief Spence’s reserve. The level of poverty was horrific and the government was harshly condemned for allowing such a travesty to occur in Canada.
But was it only the government’s fault?
Over the past five years, Attawapiskat has received almost $100 million in direct funding from the federal government, an additional few million from the provincial government and the Aboriginal Casino Gaming Fund and $325 million in contracts from DeBeers, the diamond mining company that is operating a mine on the reserve’s land.
This totals pretty close to a half a billion dollars flowing into that community. Where did it go?
There are approximately 1500 people living in Attawapiskat and the amount of money that has been committed to the community totals approximately $50,000 for every man, woman and child; almost all of which is tax exempt. More than 20%, of the community, have good paying jobs with DeBeers and yet the level of poverty was staggering.
According to the band’s own records, the annual operating budget is $31 million which seems fairly significant for such a small community but which still doesn’t come close to chewing up all the money that was poured into it.
Where did the money go?
Decisions on how the money was spent and distributed were made by the band’s leadership. They set the priorities and they spent the money. Some of the money that was earmarked by the government for education was diverted by the band council for a new hockey arena and an $80,000 Zamboni ice cleaning machine, as an example, but that doesn’t come close to explaining how such a small community could receive so much economic input and have so little to show for it.
Where did the money go?
When the government attempted to send in auditors to examine the books, Chief Spence refused to allow them access to the financial records. Considering the desperate straits this tiny remote community was facing and Chief Spence’s demands for more money and housing immediately, you would have thought she would have been only too happy to show that there had been no mismanagement or corruption related to all of the previous funding received. You would have been wrong. Chief Spence wasn’t having any outsiders take a look at the books although her refusal to provide financial transparency didn’t stop her from demanding more financial support.
Now that the government has passed legislation that requires more transparency by band councils, Chief Spence is on a hunger strike. I’m certain it is merely coincidental.
The simple reality is that while there are some First Nations communities, particularly on the west coast, that are doing exceptionally well; there are too many that are not. Considering that all First Nations receive the same per capita funding and other federal benefits and transfers, the only real difference between one band and another is the quality and integrity of its leadership.
Those First Nations communities that are achieving success have solid leadership that has found ways to incorporate modern governance and business practices within the traditions and culture of their people. Those that are not successful have too often relied on blaming others for their circumstance. It is long past time for many within the First Nations to start realizing that if they are victims, they are as much victims of poor leadership as anything else.
The federal government in partnership with the government of Saskatchewan funded an aboriginal university in that province which eventually had its funding removed as a result of mismanagement and corrupt business practices by the aboriginal leadership responsible for administrating the university.
Ex-chief Terry Nelson from Manitoba recently took a jaunt over to Iran where he appeared on Iranian television calling First Nations reserves in Canada, concentration camps. He laid out his case about how oppressed aboriginal peoples are in Canada to one of the most oppressive regimes in the world – a regime that routinely hangs people for their sexual orientation, for substance abuse and which stones women for allowing themselves to be raped. One doesn’t know whether to get angry or to simply laugh at the utter naiveté and stupidity of it.
There are countless examples although many progressives prefer to wallow in guilt rather than address the real issues or ask the hard questions like “where does all that money go?”. They would rather grandstand like Justin Trudeau did recently when he, along with the usual phalanx of photographers met with Chief Spence to discuss her grievances.
Monies that should go to provide better housing, education and water treatment are diverted for other things at the discretion of the leadership and often at the expense of the people living on the reserve but the politically correct don’t want to discuss that.
It has become a culture of dependence based on a culture of victimization that is used by too many aboriginal leaders as a diversion from their own failure to meet the needs of their people through better governance and management of their resources.
It is true that the Indian Act needs to be eliminated and nobody would be happier to see it go than the Federal Government. The fact that it still exists is a testament to the fact that First Nations want it both ways. They want the rights and benefits provided under the act without any of the responsibilities that would come without the act in place.
Too many have the same adolescent concept of being sovereign nations as nationalists do in Quebec. They want to be masters in their own house but have Canadians foot the bill for it. That isn’t sovereignty, that’s petulance and merely the illusion of independence.
It’s long past time for First Nations, especially their leadership, to stop living in the past and continuously rehashing historic grievances and treaty violations. We’ve heard them all before, addressed, paid for and even apologized for many before and it’s time to move on.
This is the 21st Century. We are no longer hunters and gatherers; we live in a different world. First Nations people have no special claim to being attached to the land. All of us, every man, woman and child is descended from tribes of indigenous peoples somewhere in the world. The difference is that we’ve evolved and moved on. We have developed modern societies, for better or for worse, with modern economies, modern technologies and whatever benefits or problems flow from that.
Some of my ancestors, like those of many others were sometimes killed by the ancestors of those we now call First Nations. I’m over it, let’s move on.
In other words, we live in the present not the past and it’s time for First Nations to stop trotting out drums they rarely use in their normal lives and waving eagle feathers in our faces every time they have a grievance. It is long past time to stop whining about a romanticized version of the past as justification for illegal blockades and even violence like we’ve seen at extended demonstrations at Oka, Caledonia and too many other places in the past.
There can be no resolution of the problems facing First Nations peoples including the quality of life on First Nation reserves until both First Nations and the government lay down new directions, new accountabilities and new partnerships. It isn’t only up to the government to address its mistakes. It is long past time for First Nations and their leadership to start doing the same thing in a meaningful way and hunger strikes and blockades ain’t going to get ‘er done.
That just continues to promote the culture of victimization that itself is the primary cause of victimization of First Nations peoples today. It’s time to account for the money that has been spent. Time to disclose the salaries of First Nations’ leaders and definitely time to put the past behind us, resolve the real issues facing both First Nations and the country in general.
Canadians are tired of being the whipping boys and girls for every group with a grievance or a finely-honed sense of entitlement and that, my friends, includes too many of our friends in the First Nations these days. It is long past time for First Nations’ leadership to take some of the responsibility and ownership for many of the problems being faced by people in their communities rather than only blaming Canadians for them.
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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