Who Speaks for Aboriginals?


The issue of indigenous people’s unrest and determination to pursue treaty obligations as agreed to by Aboriginal tribes and the Crown some 200 years ago is not something taken lightly by most Canadians.  The issues of sub-standard housing, contaminated water supplies, fundamental problems with positive delivery of education, drug abuse and violence on reserves are not ignored by non-natives, nor are these concerns considered to be “their” problems – at least not entirely.

Yes, I have heard questions on air concerning significant monies directed to Aboriginal communities and their councils by the federal government and the expectation that transparent and public accounting of these monies by elected band officials be readily available.  Attawapiskat, Ontario, is the most regularly mentioned example of what is considered to be questionable money-management.   Not at issue is that housing and living conditions in the community.  They are not only deplorable, but also frankly dangerous to the health and well-being of residents.  

However, an independent audit of how federal funds are spent at Attawapiskat raises questions about Chief Theresa Spence and her council’s practices.  A September 2012 letter from accounting firm Deloitte sent to the Chief, with a copy to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs declares more than 400 financial transactions assessed by Deloitte were without appropriate documentation.  A direct quote from the Deloitte letter reads “an average of 81 per cent of files did not have adequate supporting documents and over 60 per cent had no documentation of the reason for payment.”  The letter continues “there is no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds, including the use of funds for housing.”  

It has been well reported the Attawapiskat band council, between April, 2005 and November, 2011 was in receipt of roughly $104 million from Ottawa.  The monies were to be directed primarily toward housing, education and infrastructure.  Three key concerns raised by First Nations leaders, both elected and self-described activists of the Idle No More movement at this writing gaining momentum across Canada.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and her band council’s spending of public funds became the centre of attention precisely because of the massively sub-standard housing many of the community’s residents are enduring.   Perhaps $104 million over six years is not enough money to address the objectives it was intended to address.  However, when Deloitte following its audit concludes “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,” direct questions of where and how the money was spent are entirely legitimate.

Chief Spence, her protest fast and declarations of a desire for nation to nation meetings with the Prime Minister and Governor General served to provide momentum for the Idle No More movement which has at this writing seen several Chiefs issue warnings of public disruptions. 

Grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Nations in Ontario Gordon Peters spoke of blocking major transport corridors of the province and alerted investors in Canada that “Canada cannot give certainty to their investors any longer.  That certainty for investors can only come from us.” Chief Peters was joined by Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak who declared aboriginal activists have the collective strength to significantly damage the Canadian economy.

But who is the “us” Grand Chief Peters speaks of?  Is it Idle No More and its supporters, or the Assembly of First Nations and its Grand Chief Shawn Atleo.

Chief Atleo was derided by some in the Aboriginal community for meeting with Prime Minister Harper on Jan. 11.  Former AFN National Chief and Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees in Quebec Mathew Coon Come accompanied Atleo and was criticized for doing so, notwithstanding Chief Coon Come’s well documented record of fighting for indigenous people’s rights.  The Quebec government and it’s James Bay Hydro Project became the focus of Chief Coon Come’s determination.

Ernie Crey, Aboriginal and advisor to the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia  and co-author of “Stolen from our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities” sees something more nasty afoot; a takeover of the AFN.  In an email which he discussed on air, Crey wrote in part “This week, or soon thereafter, watch for undemocratic and demagogic people as they try to seize control of the AFN.  Their goal is to hound the National Chief from office.  The characters behind this move are some of the failed candidates in the last election for the AFN’s top job.  And they are using the sincere folks of the Idle No More “movement” to accomplish this end.  Already, they have grabbed the media’s attention and they have twisted Idle No More.”

Mr. Crey did not mention any names, but Pamela Palmater, lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and an activist with Idle No More was runner-up to Shawn Atleo for the most recent election of AFN National Chief.  Ms. Palmater also joined me on air and while in a lengthy interview certainly didn’t appear to be a significant supporter of the current Assembly of First Nations leadership, did not speak derogatorily about National Chief Atleo and his advisors. 

What Pamela Palmater did speak to was her view the Harper government is trying to “get rid of the Indian problem” and that the Conservative government doesn’t deny this.  Ms. Palmater also spoke of what she views as the federal Conservatives “aggressive legislative assimilation plan”.   Given the Prime Minister has committed to work personally on issues of greatest concern to First Nations people, Ms. Palmater may wish to revisit her views, or at least allow Mr. Harper some time to follow through on his public commitment.

Non-Aboriginals have by majority supported both on air and by email the PM’s determination to become directly engaged in indigenous people’s concerns.

Simultaneously though, threats to damage the Canadian economy and shut down corridors of transport have been met with demands the Prime Minister use the power of his office to keep such acts from taking place.

There are wise, intelligent and experienced people on both sides of this divide.  May they engage their skills to create a lasting and meaningful solution.

Roy Green is host of The Roy Green Show, a national program heard weekends on Corus Radio. Follow Roy on Twitter @theRoyGreenShow.