Imagine two small Ontario towns. One is a reserve that blocks an outside investigation into its $31.2 million annual operating budget. That town, Attawapiskat First Nation, has 1,549 people on the reserve according to the last census.
Now imagine another town, a non-Native one, where recent budget estimates peg its annual operating expenditures at $8.4 million. That’s the township of Atikokan, near Thunder Bay, with 3,293 people.
Careful readers will notice that the larger town, Atikokan, has a much smaller operating budget than does Attawapiskat.
What’s additionally curious is where the money is spent. According to Attawapiskat’s latest budget documents, $11.2 million went to salaries, wages and employee benefits. That equates to $7,249 per reserve resident on just compensation-related expenditures.
In contrast, according to the latest available estimates from Atikokan, that town spends just under $3-million on salaries and benefits, or $904 per person.
That contrast might explain the resistance by some to a third-party investigation into the finances of Attawapiskat First Nation. After all, one might reasonably ask this question: given Atikokan spent $3-million on compensation for all city staff, why must Attawapiskat spend $11.2 million? That’s an $8.2 million difference, some of which could have paid for needed housing on the Attawapiskat reserve.
Here’s another contrast. In Atikokan, (for the fiscal year ending in December 2009), the mayor’s salary was $7,713 with travel expenses of $4,268. The total cost to taxpayers thus just under $12,000. In fact, total salaries and expenses for Atikokan’s mayor and seven councillors was just $46,691.
On the Attawapiskat reserve (for the fiscal year ending in March 2010) the chief’s salary alone was $51,803. In total, salaries for Attawapiskat’s chief, deputy chief and 18 councillors that year amounted to $386,129. With $28,535 in expenses, the total cost to taxpayers was $414,664. In the next fiscal year, that cost jumped to $615,552—a 48 per cent increase.
The Attawapiskat-Atikokan comparison isn’t the only useful contrast.
Consider other northern Canadian towns that are also not reserves. In 2010, the northern Alberta town of Athabasca, with a population of 2,575 had an operating budget of $5.5 million. It spent just over $1.6 million spent on wages and benefits for all city staff, council included. That crunches out to just $644 per Athabascan.
Or how about Valemount in northern British Columbia? That village, with 1,018 people, had an annual operating budget of $3.2 million in 2010. It paid out $811,852 in compensation-related expenses, or $797 per capita.
Here’s another calculation. Per capita, if the city of Toronto spent as much on wages, salaries and benefits as did Attawapiskat First Nation, Toronto’s remuneration bill would have been $20.1 billion in 2010, this as opposed to $4.8 billion. (Toronto’s wage and benefits bill is still curiously high, at $1,741 per capita, but that’s another column.)
Such comparisons should be recalled by everyone when Chief Shawn Atleo from the Assembly of First Nations, and Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence mount the rhetorical barricades and urge everyone to move on without “assigning blame,” which is a dodge. Or when they blame “colonialism”.
Such facts should be recalled by anyone concerned about Canada’s First Nations reserves and their too-often sub-standard shape. What’s clear is that a lack of money isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s how that money is spent.
With the exception of obvious short-term help for the people of Attawapiskat in winter—to make up for past monies that were spent on a large bureaucracy instead of housing—more money won’t solve anything.
Instead, a long-term strategy is needed with the following elements: accountability for money spent; eventual transfers directly to individual natives with money then taxed back for band services; property rights for individual Natives on reserves which would help foment accountability, entrepreneurship and pride.
Lastly, realism is needed about the fact so many reserves are not economically viable. For the last two centuries, people around the world have moved from rural areas to the cities. Similarly, many people on reserves (mostly in rural areas) need to find their way close to educational, economic and social opportunities closer to major population centres, if not for themselves, then certainly for their kids.
Such opportunities are why the majority of First Nations people, 57 per cent, already choose to live off-reserve.
The challenge for politicians, native and non-native alike, is to remove existing incentives for people to stay on remote reserves, and to provide transitional help those same people move closer to opportunities.