No one expected the Battle for Seattle. The Arab Spring was unforeseen. So was the explosion of Occupy. And now the Canadian government is facing Idle No More and the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
Ever since MP Charlie Angus brought his constituents issues before the House and the Canadian people, the Harper government has handled things badly. First, it was claimed that the Chief and band were incompetent at managing and a non-First Nations manager was dispatched to clean up the mess. That story stuck with a few Canadians, but then the Attawapiskat band threw the manager off the reserve and refused to pay him--after all, he was to be paid a percentage of what was already seen to be an inadequate budget. As Michael Posluns writes in SLAW (the Canadian online law magazine):
I have witnessed Third Party Management. Not much good can be said about it. The outside manager typically begins by freezing all the band’s accounts, and opening up an account in his own name, often at his own bank. He does not spend much time in the community; he may administer Attawapiskat from Timmins or from Toronto. If Duncan’s appointment is true to form for TPMs past, he may have some managerial experience but he will also have a record of longstanding service to the governing party.Yup, the Third Party Manager shuts everything down, takes 25% of the money, and then pretty much does what his political masters tell him to.
When he closes or freezes all the band’s accounts all the band’s programs stop. I’ve seen situations where summer employment programs, hot lunch programs, recreation programs, road maintenance and everything else that is needed to sustain a community came to a screeching half. The only person who continues to get paid is the TPM himself. Typically, he pays himself 25% of the band’s income for the period he is there.
The Harper government also threw around some numbers like Attiwapiskat got 90 million dollars from the feds. The intended impression was that this was a yearly amount. In fact, it was 6 years funding--meaning the feds contributed closer to 17.5 million to the community. The community itself brought in ~12 million a year, and the provincial government kicked in another 4.4 million. Seems like a lot, but the actual amount available to the community for housing was less than six million. As Chelsea Vowell wrote on âpihtawikosisân and as the National Post reprinted:
You see, for non-natives, the provinces are in charge of funding things like education, health-care, social services and so on. For example, the Province of Ontario allocated $10,730 in education funding per non-native pupil in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. For most First Nations, particularly those on reserve, the federal government through INAC is responsible for providing funds for native education.
How is this relevant?
It helps explain why the entire $90 million was not allocated to the construction of new houses. That $90 million includes funding for things like:
These costs are often not taken into account when attempting to compare a First Nation reserve to a non-native municipality. In fact, many people forget that their own health-care and education are heavily subsidized by tax dollars as well.
- education per pupil
- education infrastructure (maintenance, repair, teacher salaries, etc)
- health-care per patient
- health-care, infrastructure (clinics, staff, access to services outside the community in the absence of facilities on reserve)
- social services (facilities, staff, etc)
- infrastructure (maintenance and construction)
- a myriad of other services
And just in case it seems reasonable for the Harper government to have appointed that third party manager, the Globe and Mail is reporting that:
Ottawa should not have responded to a housing crisis in the impoverished first nation of Attawapiskat by dispatching a third-party manager to deal with what was in fact a problem of resources, the Federal Court has ruled.If you read Michael Poslun's column, you'll see this isn't the first time the courts have ruled in this fashion. There are a number of decisions that not only point out that the government is acting dishonourably, but that treaty rights must be observed.
In a decision that takes federal bureaucrats to task for decisions made as the deplorable conditions in the remote Northern Ontario community were gaining worldwide attention, the court says the government was unable to prove any financial mismanagement on the part of Attawapiskat’s chief and council.
The Canadian federal government (in particular, the Harper government) has consistently said they do not want to deal with “rights based solutions”, but only with “needs based solutions.” Of course, that allows the minister (and in the case of the current government, only Stephen Harper) to decide what constitutes "need."
But it is only raw power that allows this--the federal court doesn't even support this desire on the part of the feds. But the feds are meant to act under the terms of the treaties signed on behalf of the crown. The stated desire of the Canadian government over the last century has been to destroy the First Nations by the process of assimilation, thereby nullifying treaty rights. The problem is, the First Nations are still standing. They've stood through residential schools, through governmental neglect and outright animosity, through germ warfare (in BC, James Douglas sent out a smallpox-infected emissary to spread the disease around the First Nations communities. It was spectacularly effective, as detailed in Tom Swanky's Canada's War of Extermination on the Pacific). Even the Canadian reserve system was apparently adopted by South Africa to create the apartheid-era homelands, but like the First Nations, Africans are still standing.
And now Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is on a hunger strike. She has requested that the Harper government live up to its treaty obligations. She also, quite smartly, I think, has asked to speak with the Govenor-General, David Lloyd Johnston. I heard him this past week on Power and Politics saying that this was not something he felt his office should be involved in, and so would not be meeting with the chief. He may need to be reminded that he is the Queen's representative in Canada, and that the First Nations signed treaties with the head of the British government, not the government of Canada. While the responsibility for acting on the treaties may have devolved to the Canadian government, there still exists, I suspect, an avenue of appeal to the British Crown. And the Brits have learned to take these actions more seriously than the Canadian government is taking them--they have the Bobby Sands hunger strike in the 1980s to draw on. It's this British connection that can make Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike even more of an international incident. MP Charlie Angus, in a recent HuffPo op-ed piece, refers to Attawaspikat as Canada's Katrina moment. And we remember how well that worked out for George W. Bush and "Heckuva job Brownie."
The demos for Idle No More, the movement that has come out of nowhere to put forward First Nations concerns, at least the ones here on the coast, have a different tone to them. No speeches (or not much speechifying, anyway). They are marked by drumming and an all-inclusive round dance. The drums and the dance state that This is a people who have been here for 14,000 years and have no intention of going away just to suit the desires of the colonialists. There is a power in the drum, and an ecstatic statement in the dance that transcends traditional politics. It is primal, it is strong, and it is going to give the Harper government one hell of a headache.
Video shot at the Idle No More demo in Victoria.