Last fall, the community of Attawapiskat declared an emergency. Five families were living in tents. 17 families were living in shacks. Winter was coming on. Their tiny community was situated close to the shores of James Bay, and you didn’t want to do your winters in that part of the country living in a tent or shack.
That declaration of emergency by a First Nations community, however, was a huge public relations problem for Stephen Harper’s government. Right-wingers had been hammering home the message for years that Aboriginal communities were over-funded and under-monitored. Monitor them more. Send them less money, was the message.
The message, although pure moonshine from the beginning, was bought into repeatedly. First Nations communities, which historically had always received less funding than other communities, were getting even that minimal funding curtailed by government after government.
That’s why in 2011, in one of the richest countries to ever exist on the planet, 23 families in a tiny little community in Northern Ontario found themselves facing a ferocious James Bay winter with only tents and shacks to shelter them.
It wasn’t a natural disaster. It wasn’t a flood or a forest fire. It was merely underfunding. Underfunding that had gone on for generations. Underfunding bordering on genocide.
It couldn’t have been mismanagement in Attawapiskat because there were no funds to mismanage. They had all been cut, or never arranged. Not least in bringing this story about was Stephen Harper’s government which had had Attawapiskat, as a First Nations community, under its direct care for several years already, and the families had moved into tents and shacks largely under their watch.
But there was no way the government intended to take responsibility for it.
Stephen Harper decided to sell the typical right-wing racist message that, rather than being underfunded egregiously—which everybody knew it was—the community was being mismanaged. So, purely in the name of public relations, to divert attention from the truth of government neglect and the better to sell his message of mismanagement, Harper sent in a third-party money manager to handle Attawapiskat’s affairs, paying that manager’s astronomical (and pointless) salary out of the community’s kitty.
The community sued, saying that management was not the issue, had never been the issue. They simply needed resources, thank you.
Well, finally, the judgement has come down, and it has come down firmly on the side of the First Nations government.
The Federal Court said:
The [government} had been advised … that the problems faced by the AFN in addressing the housing crisis were not financial management in nature but due to lack of resources and equipment….
Ultimately, while the [government] concluded that the appointment of a TPM [third-party manager] was a reasonable and necessary remedy in light of the [Attawapiskat First Nation’s] lack of capacity to address the housing crisis, the remedy he chose failed to deal with the problem at hand… Although courts must show deference to the Minister’s choice of remedy and specifically, his decision to appoint a TPM, where the remedy chosen does not respond to the problem, it is not reasonable.
Therefore, the Court must conclude that the Respondent’s decision to appoint a TPM was unreasonable in all the circumstances of this case.
The judgement means that Attawapiskat is no longer responsible for paying the third-party manager’s salary. It also means that the appointment was exactly what it seemed from Indian country: A racist public relations exercise by Stephen Harper’s government to obscure the long-standing neglect of First Nations communities by his government.
Despite this decision, I’m not sure that the exercise wasn’t a success for Harper anyway, as propaganda. You don’t see the press showing much interest in whether there are any other Attawapiskats out there.
Harper well knows that if anyone goes looking, they won’t have to look hard or far. There are hundreds of Attawapiskats in Canada, suffering from underfunding and government neglect.
Harper managed to manipulate the public discourse long enough to divert anybody from looking. As propaganda goes, that’s a Harper victory. As to his government losing in court, it’s not like it’s his money or anything.