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A question of accountability

“Poverty is usually and most effectively cured with money, not ‘accountability.’”

— Jeffrey Rath, a treaty and aboriginal-rights barrister representing

several chiefs who will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper

on Friday, in a Globe and Mail commentary yesterday.

“I think accountability is the only way to legitimize our suffering.”

— Birdtail Sioux Dakota Chief Ken Chalmers,

in a conversation with the Brandon Sun.

First Nations leaders in this country can legitimately question the federal government’s timing of the release of a scathing audit of the Attawapiskat First Nation’s books.

But they will have a hard time dismissing the content.

On Monday, after it had been leaked to media over the weekend, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development released an audit of tens of millions of dollars in spending on the Attawapiskat reserve. According to The Canadian Press, the audit details an absence of basic accounting by the band council and ongoing indifference by federal government departments.

The report, prepared by the Deloitte accounting firm, catalogues more than $109 million in spending over nearly seven years, with more than 80 per cent of it poorly documented, or not documented at all.

That the report was leaked — and then released — ahead of schedule, and before a planned meeting between aboriginal leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper this coming Friday, has not only been dismissed by Attawapiskat’s hunger-striking chief, Theresa Spence, as a “distraction,” but questioned by federal opposition party members and demonized by First Nations.

Certainly, it appears the federal government has purposefully tossed a live grenade at the ongoing Idle No More movement. However, how can the Attawapiskat chief demand new housing and resources from the federal government — and demand the repeal of elements of the latest omnibus budget bill by month’s end — when her reserve can’t account for government money it has already received?

Chief Spence was apparently apprised of the audit’s findings last August. In a letter to the chief, the Deloitte auditor stated that “there is no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds, including funds for housing. In our opinion, having over 80 per cent of selected transactions lacking any or proper supporting documentation is inappropriate for any recipient of public funds.”

What community can operate in this manner, and then feel it has the right to demand more money when it falls short? And for all that, why did federal departments sit on their hands and not withhold money when proper accounting was not given?

The whole situation stinks, and throws a nasty shadow on Chief Spence’s motivations for going to the media with her hunger strike — that and the fact that her supporters turned away journalists hoping to ask questions about the leaked audit on Monday.

It appears the original founders of the Idle No More movement were right to try to distance themselves from native chiefs who claimed to be acting on behalf of the campaign. Unfortunately, these accountability questions will only muddy the funding and poverty issues that are at the heart of the movement.

And there are real financial problems on reserves. In a conversation with the Sun last week — before the details of the audit were known — Birdtail Chief Ken Chalmers said that he viewed Idle No More as a “great grassroots movement” that had helped put a national spotlight to ongoing problems on reserves.

But he questioned the accountability of treaty First Nations like Attawapiskat where many residents live in poverty, even though it receives tens of millions of dollars in government revenue and private cash from the area diamond mine.

“When I heard 33 per cent of it was going to chief and council — there is a little bit of reaction I must admit on accountability,” Chalmers said. “If you’re accountable and still hurting like any other community, and you need more money, and if you show that you’re spending it as best you can, and you’re still having shortfalls in areas, you can go get more money if you follow that plan.”

And that’s from a non-treaty First Nation leader.

Treaties were never supposed to be one-sided — both sides, the government and First Nation communities, have obligations to live up to. We have no doubt that the federal government has not fully met its obligations to treaty First Nations, and they should be held to account.

But when bands like Attawapiskat call for greater accountability from federal leaders, they must stand on sound financial footing, if they are to claim the moral high ground.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 9, 2013

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“Poverty is usually and most effectively cured with money, not ‘accountability.’”

— Jeffrey Rath, a treaty and aboriginal-rights barrister representing

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“Poverty is usually and most effectively cured with money, not ‘accountability.’”

— Jeffrey Rath, a treaty and aboriginal-rights barrister representing

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