With millions pouring into Attawapiskat, colonial blame only goes so far – by John Ivison (National Post – December 7, 2011)

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Failed colonial policies are the biggest obstacles to First Nation progress, Shawn Atleo told a gathering of native chiefs in Ottawa Tuesday. The Assembly of First Nations chief was referring to moves such as Ottawa’s decision to put the troubled Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario under third party management. “We simply can’t lurch from crisis to crisis and we can’t accept externally imposed solutions,” he said, before lauding the chief of Attawapiskat for demonstrating transparency and accountability.

Yet the decision to intervene was simply the government exercising its fiduciary duty. The apparent mismanagement of this band by its chief, council and the co-manager, who is meant to be advising the chief but turns out to be her “life partner,” made the worst of an already bad situation. Chief Theresa Spence spoke to the chiefs in Ottawa Tuesday and urged them to take an aggressive stand with the government. “We’re not going to take it anymore,” she said.

The simple fact is, she has been stripped of authority because money has been pouring into the reserve and yet conditions have deteriorated beyond any acceptable level.

Chief Spence has made much of the De Beers diamond mine that is sited on the band’s traditional lands. “While [Ottawa, the provincial government and De Beers Canada] reap the riches, my people shiver in cold shacks … Precious diamonds from my land grace the fingers and necklaces of Hollywood celebrities,” she said.

What she didn’t say is that, in addition to the $90-million Attawapiskat has received from the federal government over the past five years, it has also received millions from De Beers. The company has pledged around $30-million over the 12-year life of the $1-billion Victor mine, made up of an initial signing bonus of $1-million and at least $2-million a year since 2005.

The money is paid into a trust, to which the band has access. In fact, in each of the past two years, it has withdrawn $1-million, according to the band’s financial statements. It begs the question: why didn’t the council access this rainy day fund to build some emergency housing and avert the crisis that has now engulfed the community?

When the project was announced, the government made available $10-million in skills training, an amount De Beers augmented with a further $1.8-million in facilities and equipment. One person familiar with the training program said the numbers who enrolled were much lower than had been anticipated. Around 500 people from the reserve were hired during the construction phase but only 100 people still work there today.

As part of the deal with De Beers, $325-million in contracts have been funnelled through solely owned or joint-owned companies based on Attawapiskat since construction started in 2006. Attawapiskat Resources Inc. currently has contracts to provide catering, dynamite and helicopter services to Victor. However, despite all that business flowing through ARI, the band’s accounts suggest just it has made just $99,867 in profits since its inception.

People familiar with the impact benefit agreement (IBA) signed between the band and De Beers say the terms are comparable to other IBAs signed at the time but the physical benefits in Attawapiskat are far less apparent than in other aboriginal communities that signed similar deals, such as the Innu at Voisey’s Bay in Labrador. The IBA was ratified by nearly 90% of band members (even if some disgruntled residents suggest a lack of understanding meant only one in five people voted). This is not the picture of colonial exploitation that many people have been quick to paint.

For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/12/06/john-ivison-with-millions-pouring-into-attawapiskat-colonial-blame-only-go-so-far/

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