Chief counters audit with demands
OTTAWA—The battle over the plight of Canada’s First Nations escalated yesterday amid accusations of a cynical public relations ploy by the Harper government and new demands by a hunger-striking chief.
Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a liquid diet since Dec. 11, said she now wants elements of the Conservatives’ latest omnibus budget bill repealed as soon as MPs return to Ottawa at the end of the month.
“We are asking that the legislation related to [native] lands encoded in Bill C-45 must be rescinded as soon as Parliament resumes,” Spence said in a release.
The new demand comes as Ottawa releases a scathing audit of tens of millions of dollars in spending on Spence’s Attawapiskat reserve—a troubled community on the shores of James Bay in Northern Ontario.
The audit details an absence of basic accounting by the band council and ongoing indifference by federal government departments.
Spence’s release called the leaked audit “no more than a distraction of the true issue . . . to discredit Chief Spence who is willing to lay down her life for a larger cause.”
Her spokesman, Danny Metatawabin, earlier had accused the Harper Conservatives of “trying to undermine the process here, the movement of the people.”
The Deloitte audit—released publicly yesterday by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development after being leaked to select media outlets on the weekend—catalogues more than $109 million in spending over almost seven years, much of it poorly-documented, undocumented, or questionable.
The timing is explosive.
Harper agreed last Friday to meet with aboriginal leaders on Jan. 11. And while Harper was careful not to link the meeting to Spence’s hunger protest, his decision was widely seen as a concession.
The damning audit similarly was interpreted as the Prime Minister’s Office pushing back in the war for public opinion.
“It’s an interesting way of shifting the blame,” charged Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal critic for aboriginal affairs.
Repeated reports from the federal auditor general have highlighted financial reporting issues for First Nations since at a least 2002.
Bennett said if Aboriginal Affairs was doing its job and was unsatisfied with spending documentation, “then the government can ask for them before it sends any more money.”
The Attawapiskat audit was commissioned by Ottawa in December, 2011 after Spence, with winter approaching, had declared a state of emergency over concerns about unsafe housing conditions in her remote community of about 1,800 residents.
The Conservatives questioned why the problem existed, given the millions provided to Attawapiskat over the years, and Ottawa briefly imposed an external manager on the band.
The Deloitte audit is the only comprehensive analysis of a band’s finances the government has posted on its website.
It is unclear if other First Nations have ever come under the same level of independent scrutiny, although three smaller reviews were undertaken last year of different bands after allegations of misspending.
Spence was first apprised of the audit’s findings last Aug. 28 in a letter in which the Deloitte auditor wrote that “there is no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds, including funds for housing.”
“In our opinion, having over 80 percent of selected transactions lacking any or proper supporting documentation is inappropriate for any recipient of public funds.”