Idle No More – Part Three: Protests & A Hunger Strike By Chief Theresa Spence
This is the final installment of a three-part series on the misconceptions that sparked the Idle No More Movement. The series is part of five articles on aboriginal leadership and financial accountability that have been published over the past week.
The first two articles were written by Maggie’s Bear while the first two of this series were written by Peggy Tupper.
This final installment is co-authored by both and is both an explanation of the reasons for the implementation of the governments Financial Transparency Act (Bill C27) and a summary of the root causes behind both Idle No More and the issues being faced on many reserves today.
Idle No More – Part Three: Protests & A Hunger Strike By Chief Theresa Spence
by Maggie’s Bear & Peggy Tupper
On December 11 last year, Attawapiskat band Chief Theresa Spence arrived in Ottawa where she set herself up on Victoria Island and announced that she was going on a hunger strike until the Prime Minister of Canada met with her to address aboriginal concerns and treaty violations.
On December 18, she gave an interview to the CBC’s Chris Rand during which she indicated that she would continue her hunger strike until all levels of government met with all aboriginal leaders. This was to include the Prime Minister of Canada, The Governor General of Canada and all of the provincial premiers along with all of the First Nations’ chiefs.
While she claimed in that interview that her hunger strike was in response to living conditions on an unnamed reserve to which she referred, it is interesting to note that she did not once refer to being prompted by the living conditions on her own reserve which came into question a year earlier.
It is also interesting to note that at no time did Chief Spence give the appearance of considering any kind of action earlier in the year until after the government passed Bill C-27 on December 2; an act requiring full financial disclosure of band operations and in particular transparency for all remuneration paid to band leaders.
For those who have not followed the story of the unbelievable living conditions in Attawapiskat, the reserve first made headlines a year ago with photos and videos of people living in one room shacks, with no running water, toilets or other modern facilities.
Stories appeared daily about the abject poverty, sewage backups and overflow that made many if not most of the homes uninhabitable because the basements were full of raw sewage. Apparently the sewage issue had been a problem for several years but the band council had never dealt with it. Ultimately, many of the homes were abandoned and people moved into dormitory conditions, one room per family with communal bathrooms.
Families that did not want to stay in the dormitory built a shack and then dumped their sewage in the ditch in front of it.
There were stories about the lack of a school. There had been a school but a diesel spill made the school unusable so it was torn down. Monies that were part of the education budget were diverted to purchase a new Zamboni for the new hockey arena. The children now go to school in portables.
Children have skin rashes from the water because the band supplied water must be very heavily chlorinated to kill the bacteria from sewage.
The stories about Attawapiskat emerged after Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in her community. Very quickly, the eyes of the world were on this desolate community of some 1500 people 500 kms north of Timmins.
For a good part of the year, the only way in or out of the reserve is by air which is expensive and which drives up the cost of everything from food to clothing. There is what is called an ice road but it is only available in the winter months, when the muskeg and James Bay freeze and trucks can traverse the distance and make deliveries to this isolated community.
Last winter, there was public outrage that people in Canada were living in such appalling conditions. The outrage was initially directed towards the federal government until it was disclosed that the band had received more than $90 million from the federal government along with millions more from the provincial government, DeBeers and the Aboriginal Casino fund. It did not take long for that public outrage to change as people started asking questions about the financial management on the reserve.
The Canadian public is asking even more questions now that it has become common knowledge that over $6 billion is paid annually to First Nation communities in Canada.
Last winter, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs authorized a third party manager to oversee the finances of the band. In conjunction with this, Minister Duncan arranged for modular homes to be fast-tracked and delivered to the community using the ice road.
While she accepted the emergency housing, Chief Spence refused to allow the professional manager to enter the reserve. She did, however, continue to welcome a lineup of journalists, a collection of opposition MPs and others for photo ops and who she felt would be sympathetic to her version of what was happening.
Chief Spence claimed that all the money went to “programs” and that audited financial documents are posted online. She is correct. The financial statements are posted online but she is incorrect in her claim that all the money goes to programs. In fact, only just over a third of the operating budget goes to programs.
The band has an annual operating budget of $34 million of which just over $12 million goes to programs and more than $11 million to salaries for the chief and other band leaders. There are 3 chiefs on the payroll, 19 councilors, 2 administrators, 5 unelected officials and 12 members of the Education Board.
This is not all of the money that is paid to various officials on the reserve. There are 8 band corporations all with their own budgets that other budgets that fund salaries and remuneration including $27,000 paid to one band member for the provision of day-care services over a three month period.
Despite the appalling living conditions that Chief Spence articulated in her CBC interview, the band was unable to spend all of the revenue it took in and added an additional $3 million to its accumulated surplus which now stands at $60 million.
It also has an $8 million trust account which invests in everything from technology to the very resource-based companies including the oil sands and Enbridge, First Nations claim are destroying the environment.
Based on this and on complaints from residents of other bands across Canada, there seemed to be a need for a closer look at how bands are being managed and the money being spent. To meet this need, Minister Duncan sponsored Bill C-27 requiring all First Nations to provide full and transparent financial disclosure to their people.
Bill C27 is a financial transparency act which requires band councils to be fully open and transparent in their financial management of band funds including all remuneration paid to band leaders. To insure that no remuneration could be hidden, the bill was very specific and included two key defined reporting requirements:
“expenses” are to include the costs of transportation, accommodation, meals, hospitality and incidental expenses.
“remuneration” is defined as any salaries, wages, commissions, bonuses, fees, honoraria and dividends and any other monetary benefits — other than the reimbursement of expenses — and non-monetary benefits.
This means that all monies paid to the chief and councilors must be accounted for, and fully disclosed, rather than only that which is declared as salary. Needless to say, there were many in the aboriginal leadership who were not happy with this passing of this legislation.
This is particularly true because the bill also includes the authority to withhold funds to a band for breaches of the accounting transparency act until such time as the breaches are resolved.
It would seem that Chief Spence has some issues with Bill C-27 and that is the reason for her protest but perhaps she doth protest too much.
When she complains about treaties not being honoured, she is talking about the possible withholding of monies until compliance has been met regarding transparency.
And that brings us full circle to Idle No More.
The Idle No More movement, which started in Saskatchewan, was in its infancy in early December. When it stated getting media attention, Chief Spence like so many others, piggybacked on it and as a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen reported,
“Activist opinion in Canada is actually cheering her on. We are all expected to be moved by Spence’s hunger strike, to be humbled, and to be ashamed of ourselves as Canadians. Out of empathy, you understand.”
Ashamed of what?
Canadians invest more than $6 billion a year into aboriginal communities and that does not include welfare payments, the cost of sales and income tax exemptions, post-secondary education subsidies, subsidized prescription medication or the same health care services available to other Canadians.
Gone are the very real and serious questions about Chief Spence’s management of her reserve and the role that played in the abject poverty in which her people live. She has become a media darling. Opposition MPs, some media (Chief Spence is highly selective in who she will and won’t speak with) and various activists have all made pilgrimage to Victoria Island to pay homage to a band chief who has used Idle No More and her hunger strike as a means of distracting from her own failed leadership.
She is not alone.
So much of the leadership of the First Nations laid claim to the Idle No More that the movement finally posted statements on its web site in which it has begun to distance itself from the chiefs.
Once again Canadians have railways blockaded, shopping malls being used for round dances, highways being blocked, politicians like Justin Trudeau tripping all over himself for a photo op and all of it is predicated on misinformation, vested self-interest and an attempt to distract from some of the real and serious root causes of high levels of teen suicide, substance abuse, failed band management and the fact that some live large while those they are supposed to represent live in poverty.
This is not true for all reserves. While all reserves are treated equally in terms of per capita funding, some are better managed by their leadership than others. There are many reserves on the west coast, in Ontario and other provinces that prosper thanks to a leadership that is more focused, organized and committed to the prosperity of its people than on blame and promoting a culture of victimization.
Much has been made in the media about Idle No More just as much was made of last year’s Occupy Movement. Back then, Occupy was everybody’s darling; a movement that was going to bring about a revolution based on “an idea that was too big to fail.”
Fail it did.
It was overrun by the same grandiose visions, over-the-top media hype, militant activists and cynical opportunists. It eventually degenerated into a self-serving, ill-informed and increasingly violent movement that ultimately became a parody of itself. It was evicted from parks across the country by law enforcement and now stands in tatters and disrepute, a caricature of its former self.
Idle No More is standing on the same precipice upon which Occupy once stood.
Part of the reason for the failure of Occupy was that it had no specific objectives beyond making a lot of noise and many who have hitched their horses to the Idle No More bandwagon are not much different. Whatever the original intent and regardless of the sincerity of its founders; Idle No More is quickly becoming a runaway train of disjointed activism and actions.
It lacks clear direction or defined achievable objectives.
It, like Chief Spence, has no specific agenda for discussions with the Government; it is just more of the same that we’ve seen before. They call it a revolution but in reality it is the same old rhetoric, accusations, blame and activism that has been trotted out in the past. It lacks defined objectives and is just more lofty visions about living in harmony with Mother Earth while holding the government to account for all the problems facing indigenous peoples today.
Idle No More would be better off holding their leadership to account for its failures and focusing on the poverty that is ruining their way of life, threatening their children and undermining their future.
Don’t take our word for it; many within the First Nations’ community are saying much the same thing.
Ernie Crey, is the former vice-president of the United Native Nations, a veteran aboriginal fishing rights activist and co-author of the award-winning Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities.
He’s seen all of this before too and has been a long-time champion for the mostly voiceless aboriginals of Canada’s inner cities he was one of the leading voices behind forcing authorities to investigate the disappearance of missing aboriginal women in Vancouver that eventually led to the arrest of Robert Picton.
“We’ve got to get past this stage. There is no magic policy bullet that’s going to come out of some meeting with the prime minister or the Indian Affairs minister. We’re dealing with issues here that have bedeviled the very best of the aboriginal leadership for years.
“We have to get down to brass tacks here. To get anywhere, you need to be tightly organized. You have to formulate a serious program. You need a strategy that you’re following, with a concrete agenda. And you have to be able to articulate real and achievable goals. You’ve got to be very suspicious of national visions, or visions of any kind,”
He’s right and building a movement on the same misinformation, accusations and demands which employ all of the same old demonstrations and violence we’ve seen countless times before isn’t going to get it done. It hasn’t worked in the past and there is no reason to believe it will work now.
It’s long past time for Canadians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike to come to the realization that the problems many First Nations’ bands face have less to do with historical arguments about treaties than they do with band management and the poor living conditions and lack of opportunity that arise from that.
The solutions to those issues are complex and difficut; but if Idle No More wants to start a true revolution that would be a good place to start. Merely allowing itself to continue to promulgate a sense of victimization and colonization will result in a degeneration into the same old hype and activism of the past and that is a road that leads nowhere for anyone.
It is part of the road that brought us here.
————————————————————————————————————- Some First Nations’ Financial Statements Generate More Questions Than Answers ————————————————————————————————————-
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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