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42 Manitoba reserves under fiscal scrutiny

Hunger-striking chief won't attend meeting

Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press
Chief Theresa Spence continues her hunger strike in Ottawa Wednesday.

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Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press Chief Theresa Spence continues her hunger strike in Ottawa Wednesday.

OTTAWA -- Problems with money management on reserves stretches far beyond the bounds of the remote community of Attawapiskat. In Manitoba, 42 First Nations communities are under some kind of government oversight because of serious problems with how they account for their finances.

Nationwide, of the 615 bands across Canada, 157 are currently considered as having defaulted on their financial obligations, according to a list on the website of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

The issue is far bigger than paperwork, said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Accounting and standards applied to First Nations communities are entirely political, arbitrary and manipulated to meet government objectives of containing and assimilating us while the vast wealth of our ancestral lands is exploited," Nepinak said in a statement.

Eighty reserves throughout Canada are working in tandem with Ottawa to put in place a plan to get out of the financial doghouse, 63 have enlisted the services of an outside agency and 14 of the most dire cases have had their finances taken over altogether.

A band is thrown into default if it meets certain criteria laid out by the federal government, which can include a belief on the part of the minister the health, safety or welfare of the community is at risk of being compromised.

Of the 157 bands listed, some have well-documented financial -- and, in some cases, criminal -- problems related to their money.

For others, the reasons they're on the list aren't immediately apparent.

But the books belonging to the remote community of Attawapiskat appear to be the only ones to have been thoroughly analyzed -- and publicized -- by the federal government.

When asked if any other band in Canada has ever been subjected to such financial scrutiny, a spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan wouldn't say.

"(Aboriginal Affairs) conducts audits on a regular basis to provide assurance that the funding provided to First Nation communities is spent for its intended purposes and in compliance with the terms and condition of all funding agreements signed with AANDC and Health Canada," Jan O'Driscoll said in an email.

"Given the extraordinary conditions and ongoing housing issues in Attawapiskat, the minister asked an independent auditor to examine how money has been spent and what oversight measures have been taken over the past five years."

It was housing that drew the attention of the federal government to Attawapiskat.

Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency there last year over housing conditions on the reserve. Families were living in rundown shacks with no heat and the Red Cross was forced to fly in supplies.

That was despite the federal government having provided the reserve with an estimated $90 million since 2006.

The Attawapiskat audit released this week showed some of the funds were used to pay down debt, a practice of which the government has long been aware. Other money couldn't be accounted for because the required paperwork couldn't be found.

Spence, who has been subsisting since Dec. 11 on fish broth and medicinal tea while camped out on an island in the Ottawa River, said Wednesday she won't attend Friday's meeting with First Nations chiefs without the Governor General, who has said he won't be there.

The Conservatives will proceed with or without Spence, and insist the meeting -- set up at the request of the Assembly of First Nations -- isn't about issues on a single reserve.

"We've responded to their invitation for this next step, this meeting on Friday, and I will leave the decision with respect to who will be there to the Assembly of First Nations," said Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs.

The government says Friday's meeting will include a large plenary session, with three priority areas up for discussion: economic development on reserves, aboriginal rights and treaty relationships. There will be smaller, break-out sessions during the day.

One of the central complaints of the Idle No More movement has been about a lack of consultation between the federal government and aboriginals on key pieces of legislation, including the government's controversial budget-implementation bills.

-- The Canadian Press

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