Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tories take control of Attawapiskat funds

NDP leader dares Harper to spend a night there

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OTTAWA -- Opposition MPs urged the prime minister Wednesday to go see for himself the realities of life on a northern Ontario reserve struggling with a housing shortage.

Instead, Stephen Harper said he's sending the auditors.

The federal government has taken control of public funding out of the hands of Attawapiskat and ordered an audit to find out where federal money spent in the Cree community has gone over the last five years and why it hasn't helped ward off the current housing crisis there.

"The government has invested more than $90 million in this community and the results are not acceptable," Harper said. "We are going to take further measures to ensure better outcomes."

The Opposition demanded a more humanitarian -- and human -- response, calling for a short-term and long-term plan to address the reserve's needs.

"An entire Canadian community living in Third World country, that's what we see right now, in the Arctic cold," NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said.

"The prime minister should go and see by himself. You should sleep in a shack with a sleeping bag. You'll see the sleeping bags provided by the Red Cross is not the solution."

A spokesman for the prime minister said he had no immediate plans to visit the reserve.

Band officials could not be reached for comment.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said emergency measures were being taken to make sure Attawapiskat has warm, dry shelter this winter in the face of the severe housing shortage that's left families living in tents without access to running water and electricity.

The decision to place the band under third-party management was the appropriate step, he said.

"This allows us to move very quickly to address the needs that are there," Duncan said Wednesday.

Harper will meet today with Shawn Atleo, the head of the Assembly of First Nations. The meeting was scheduled before the Attawapiskat issue came up, but it's likely to be on the table.

The Cree community of about 2,000 had already been under co-management, meaning they were working with a third party to organize their finances.

Placing the community under third-party management is the strongest form of intervention available to the federal government when it believes the health, safety or welfare of aboriginals are compromised and funding agreements aren't being honoured.

A 2010 evaluation of the government's policy estimated some 42 per cent of First Nations are under some kind of intervention. The study suggested the intervention policy is flawed and doesn't help address the root causes of problems on reserves.

Duncan said First Nations have to be more transparent with their finances, but conceded Attawapiskat is one of only 13 bands in Canada that post their financial statements publicly.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said if Conservative officials wanted to know what was going on with the money, they could have spoken to the manager or at least gone to the reserve.

"Why is it when it's a First Nations community in distress, this government's response is contempt?" asked Angus, who represents the Attawapiskat reserve.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae urged the government to broaden its response to the problem.

"What troubles me about this whole debate is that everyone's going to focus on this one community," Rae said.

"The government's going to say we're putting it under strong management, that's going to solve the problem and everybody's going to walk away from their television sets and think the problem is solved.

"The problem isn't solved. The housing issue is catastrophic right across these communities across northern Canada."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2011 A10

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