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Truth is more complex than Attawapiskat audit can tell us

Those who believe that many native band councils are incompetent or worse will seize the Deloitte audit of Attawapiskat First Nation with glee.

Those who believe native leaders struggle to provide housing, health care and education from federal grants that are a fraction of what is needed and owed will dismiss the report as irrelevant. Both sides, and neither side, will be right.

There is not one truth to the condition of first nations living on reserve in Canada. There are many truths – each often in conflict with the other.

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Those conflicting truths could keep Stephen Harper and first-nations chiefs from actually hearing each other when they meet Friday. That's usually what happens when the government – any government – and native leaders meet.

The Deloitte audit is anything but flattering to Chief Theresa Spence, who is on a hunger strike in an effort to get the Harper government to pay greater attention to the desperate conditions on many reserves.

From April, 2005, to November, 2011, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development transferred $104-million to the remote reserve in Northern Ontario to meet housing, education, sanitation, health care and other needs.

Thanks to staff turnover, bookkeeping changes and – presumably – general sloppiness, auditors can only account for 19 per cent of expenditures. For the rest, someone lost the receipt.

It's important to note that no one is alleging malfeasance. Still, the 1,500 people of Attawapiskat have a right to demand that their community's leadership do a better job of running things.

But for Jeffrey Rath, a prominent lawyer who advocates for first nations, it's Ottawa, not Attawapiskat, that should be more accountable.

In an essay submitted to The Globe, Mr. Rath argues that economic-benefit obligations under numbered-treaty provisions, which the federal government has already acknowledged it owes, stands at more than $20-billion.

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His clients, Mr. Rath said in an interview, see the calls for better first-nations accountability as nothing more than a political distraction from the real issue, which is the refusal by Canada to pay them what they are owed by treaty.

"A couple of hundred million per first nation would buy a lot of accountants," he said.

But no government and no prime minister, and hardly any non-native Canadians, accept that first nations are, in fact, nations, or that they are entitled in full to the lands and revenues they claim. That's just the truth of it.

It's also true that, however the Aboriginal Affairs money was spent at Attawapiskat, it breaks down to less than $11,000 a year per resident, which is not a lot for housing and education and healthcare and municipal services.

One truth piles on top of, and sinks, another, as the world watches Ottawa grapple with Idle No More.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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