This week I have had a large number of requests for comment regarding the ongoing challenges of the Attawapiskat First Nation, and related events that have occurred recently in Ottawa. To be clear, it is relatively easy to criticize the financial management practices at Attawapiskat. At a time when some are living in appalling conditions, the Chief and her live-in partner who is also the band co-manager have a combined household income reported to be $250,000 per year. When asked about the $250,000 the band co-manager is quoted as “I think it’s adequate for the job that is being done”. A recent Deloitte Audit along with a management letter from the Band’s own accounting firm Ross, Pope & Co., have raised very serious questions regarding the accounting practices and lack of documentation to illustrate where millions in spending has gone. However as easy as it may be to criticize the lack of financial accountability in Attawapiskat, we must also recognize that criticism does little to help those living in Attawapiskat who do not have the benefit of a $250,000 household income. For those living in appalling and unacceptable conditions, very serious challenges remain.
There is also, in my view, a much larger problem; one that was highlighted on Monday, October 15, 2007. It was on this day that Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Kim Baird gave a historic speech in the BC Legislature to recognize the first reading of a Bill that would ultimately bring into law, a treaty agreement for the Tsawwassen First Nation. Inside the Legislature many First Nations leaders had gathered to celebrate the success of this milestone agreement however outside of the Legislature a different group of First Nations leaders had also gathered to protest against the treaty and related process. This strong disagreement and lack of a consensus based approach within First Nations was what occurred again last week in Ottawa. While Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo gathered with other First Nations leaders in a meeting with the Prime Minister, other First Nations leaders disagreed so strongly with this meeting that they attempted to create a physical blockade to prevent the meeting from even occurring. The fact that there is such a strong lack of consensus among different First Nations leaders is clearly serving as a barrier to find solutions which would improve the lives of so many.
Closer to home I often asked why instead of protesting, more bands do not follow the example of successful bands such as the Osoyoos Indian Band and the Westbank First Nation. It is important to recognize that there are many variables unique to individual bands that must be taken into consideration; a subject I wrote about in my September 3rd, 2012 MP report. However, one key aspect that both Westbank and Osoyoos share is the ability to utilize band lands for economic development initiatives through long term leases. Ironically one of the provisions of Bill C-45 is to streamline and make it both easier and faster for those bands that do make the decisions to enter into long term leases to be able to do so. In other words, Bill C-45 actually makes it easier for First Nations to follow the same economic principles that have been successful for Westbank and Osoyoos if they choose to do so, and only if they choose to do so. Yet some band Chiefs are opposed to having the process of leasing band lands simplified, even though they can choose not to do so. I mention this point only to put into context the degree of challenge that exists with such strongly differing opinions.
The Solution? As I mentioned earlier, and in my Sept 3rd, 2012 MP report, I believe that each First Nation is unique. As is often the case, one size fits all Ottawa imposed solutions seldom find success in an area where there is so much diversity. I also believe it is important that Government at all levels attempts to engage and work with individual bands on a one to one basis. In my view we must also focus more on the many First Nation success stories and not always on the failures. Fortunately we currently have many great things occurring within the Penticton Indian Band and there is a positive working relationship between the leadership of the Band, and all levels of Government. The projects we are collectively working on will greatly help to increase economic development, employment and revenue for the band and for our region collectively. I am excited at the opportunity that is currently before us, and hope in the very near future this will be a success story unique to our region.
Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla and can be reached at [email protected]