Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Attawapiskat Sheds Light on Canada's Ghetto System

There was a joke floating around several years ago, with an American and Canadian arguing the benefits of their respective countries.

The Canadian lashed out at the American "At least in Canada, we don't have ghettos", to which the American replied,  "I know. You call them "reserves""  Most of our cities do have ghettos, areas set aside for the poor, but the way in which many of our First Nations are forced to live, gives Canada no moral authority to criticize anyone.

I was sent a link to a story yesterday, a press release from 2005, after an agreement was reached between the community of Attawapiskat and De Beers Canada. (1)  There was a sense of camaraderie, as both sides were simply then waiting for the environmental assessment before the project could begin.  De Beers had held over 100 community meetings to sell the mines as a major boon to the economy of the region.

Former Attawapiskat Chief Mike Carpenter said , “De Beers Canada’s diamond mine is the first and only opportunity our community has ever had to break free of our soul-destroying poverty”
... among other issues, the mine sparked debate within the community regarding how to proceed given their longstanding interest in environmental protection and cultural preservation on one hand, and the economic benefits the mine could bring on the other (Inf. #2, 8). According to one informant, “the community was wary of the colonial history of De Beers and the mining industry`s track record with Aboriginal communities” (2)
This was to be a partnership, with the promise of prosperity for all.

So what went wrong?  Why four years later were the people of Attawapiskat forced to put up road blocks, and why two years after that, are we still seeing images of "soul-destroying poverty"?  According to residents, De Beers has not been honouring the Impact Benefit Agreement (3), and viewing the images we've seen the past week or so, it would be hard not to agree.

In Ezra Levant's rant, in which he blamed the "greedy" aboriginal community, he implied that at least one resident blamed the situation on their leaders, meaning that they agreed with the accusations of fund mismanagement.  However, when I read comments from the community, the anger with their leaders, is over the agreement to allow De Beers to set up shop in the first place.

Besides worsening poverty, the community is subjected to racial attacks, workplace inequality and environmental damage, as a result of the mining operation. (4)

De Beers claimed in 2005, that they were sensitive to the needs of the community, understanding that once the diamonds were gone, they would be too, so wanted to leave the area in a better condition than it was when they went in.  Instead they will be leaving Attawapiskat, not only poorer, but in turmoil.

But What of That Big Screen TV?

The right-wing noise machine has made much of the image of a big screen TV, a hockey rink with a Zamboni and a late model truck found in a ditch.  If we gave them all that money, why did they waste it on such frivolous things?

A big screen TV would not be out of place in the homes of De Beers executives.  In fact if we were watching a video of one of their estates and in the backyard there was an old rundown shack, we would question why with all their money they didn't have the eyesore removed.

The sight of that TV surrounded by such squalor, is actually a symbol of promises made and promises not kept.  There should have been a big TV in every home and no one in the community should be forced to live in poverty.

The Victor Mine is producing 600,000 carats of diamonds per year.  The provincial government receives an 11% levee and the federal government, 15% in corporate taxes.  All money coming from diamonds being extracted from land owned by the Attawapiskat people.

Maybe instead of sending in auditors to examine the books of the reserve, we should send the auditors to the government offices and De Beers.  Where is the adequate housing and largess, promised by this "partnership"?  They are not receiving "public" hand outs, but their share of tax revenues and corporate profit.

Blogger BC Blue, brought up NDP’s Ian Capstick's interview on Power and Politics.  Capstick speaks of visiting the reserve with Jack Layton, and being so moved that they sent sports equipment.  I have to admit that my first reaction was sports equipment?  Are you kidding me?

However, sometimes small gestures can make a huge difference.

I'm reminded of a story that I read several years ago in the Readers Digest.  It was from a Canadian Vet who had been in Holland during the Liberation.  He spoke of Dutch children who would often surround their camp, and how moved the Canadian soldiers were by the forlorn faces of these young people who had known nothing but war.

So the cook took what extra provisions they had and whipped up a batch donuts, and that snapshot in history, of those sticky smiling faces, left a lasting impression on the author of the story.  That cook couldn't change what had happened, but he offered a glimmer of hope, and sometimes that's all we can do. 

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence kicked out the auditor sent by Harper, telling them that she just wasn't going to take it anymore.  I am so proud of her.

The Harper government only moves in when the corporate sector is in trouble.

When lumber giant Domtar, was facing blockades at Barriere Lake, Harper placed the reserve under Third Party Management, and replaced the elected chief with corporate friendly Casey Ratt.

When a doctor reported a high occurrence of a rare form of cancer at Fort Chipewa, downstream from the tar sands, the Harper government vilified the physican, and when he appeared at a Parliamentary committee with an environmentalist, Conservative Peter Braid, that bumbling idiot, went on the attack, attempting to discredit them both.

That's what passes for democracy in Harperland.

His recent attempted takeover of the affairs of Attawapiskat, is just more corporate protectionism, and we all need to stand with Chief Spence.  How much more can they be victimized?


1. Attawapiskat gives thumbs up to mining project: The Victor diamond mine project passed its latest hurdle. Wawatay News, July 14, 2005: Volume 32 #14

2. Attawapiskat First Nation, Canadian Business Ethics Research Network,  2009

3. Attawapiskat members issue demands to DeBeers, Wawatay News, February 18, 2009
4. Attawapiskat unhappy over Victor Mine issues: Environmental, contract and discrimination concerns emerge, By: Nick Stewart, Northern Ontario Business, December 7, 2009


  1. I'd be curious to know how much that BDO bean counter flown in from South cost?

  2. "The direct cost of the intervention policy for First Nations can be significant: in 2009-10, the average cost for third-party intervention was $142,969. The band pays this cost."

    That's almost triple what the chief makes, btw.

  3. Bloody hell! It's worse than that -- it's $1300/day, which runs to about $300,000 a year!

    "The federal government is forcing the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation to pay a private-sector consultant about $1,300 a day to run its finances – even though the government's own assessments say the third-party management system is not cost-effective.

    Aboriginal Affairs officials told The Canadian Press they have an agreement to pay Jacques Marion of BDO Canada LLP a total of $180,000 to look after the reserve's accounts from now until June 30.

    The money comes from the Attawapiskat First Nation's budget. That rate over the course of a year would run up to $300,000 and easily pay for at least one nice, solid house, notes Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit.

    “And [Aboriginal Affairs] should pay for this over and above First Nations existing budgets,” he said.

    Instead, the band will soon find itself cutting off educational assistants and aides for special-needs children in order to scrape together the money to pay the consultant, said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, whose Northern Ontario riding includes Attawapiskat."