Maybe you've never heard of it. It's a First Nations community on the shore of James Bay. A couple of weeks ago, hardly anyone outside of northern Ontario would have heard of it, but now it's rampaging across national news. I myself heard about it a bit earlier than when it broke into the headlines, from a post on Boing Boing talking about the dire straits the community was in - with winter approaching and its shelter inadequate when you consider just how cold it gets in northern Ontario in December, the town declared a state of emergency and for days the Feds did nothing. Which I'm sure is totally in keeping with how the Constitution gives the federal government "exclusive legislative authority" over First Nations and their lands, just like the census and the military and Canada Post. I was hesitant about making a post on the matter, because to be perfectly honest I'm not really up to speed on this subject and was unwilling to stumble into making an ass of myself.
Now, though, things have changed. Earlier this week, the federal government announced that it was taking direct control of Attawapiskat's funding and organizing an audit to figure out how the $90 million invested in it - since 2006, mind you; the government has been particularly careful to avoid noting the timescale involved, but the Attawapiskat First Nation's audited schedule of funding from the year ended March 31, 2011 is pretty clear in that the total amount of federal funding received for that year was $17.6 million - considerably less than an F-35, in other words.
For me, it's not surprising that the government's first reaction seems to have been "seize control" - Harper acting dictatorial is, honestly, nothing new. It's not surprising but it is extremely regrettable; in my mind, seizing control of finances in situations like this should require the presentation of a great deal of evidence justifying it, whereas from what I've seen in the media, the government's takeover of Attawapiskat's finances has been more along the lines of "we think you're misappropriating funds, so we're just going to take over right now."
Not just for that reason, though. Also because it feeds into the extremely negative historical precedent that seems to have been established with regard to the federal government versus the First Nations. What I get from the government's actions is the sense that, yet again, it's telling us that "those Indians just can't look after themselves."
The history of Canada's treatment of its First Nations population is a sad and sorry one, a centuries-long litany of theft and abuse with the ultimate goal being for the First Nations, as a distinct group, to cease to exist. I'm not editorializing here - this was stated explicitly in 1931 by Duncan Campbell Scott, at the time Canada's Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Here's a relevant quote from his The Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada:
"It is the opinion of the writer... that by policies and activities such as have been outlined, the Government will in time reach the end of its responsibility as the Indians progress into civilization and finally disappear as a separate and distinct people, not by race extinction but by gradual assimilation with their fellow citizens."
Incidentally, the idea of a government official in 1931 referring to Natives as "fellow citizens" is something of a laugh in its own right - "second-class citizens" would be more appropriate; after all, it was not until 1960 that First Nations people were allowed to vote in federal elections while retaining their treaty status. 1960! This isn't deep-past stuff; this is within Prime Minister Harper's own lifetime! That doesn't sound much like equal citizenship to me - and if it's not equal, what the hell kind of citizenship is it anyway?
My point is that I feel the government has a particular responsibility to the First Nations, considering the role the Canadian government has had in, bluntly, fucking the First Nations for practically as long as there has been a Canadian government. The fact that it's not the current government that did those things is immaterial - it is still the Government of Canada, and by dint of being Canada's government, still bears the responsibility to set things right.
This should have been a time for the government to walk carefully - but I'm forgetting myself. This is Stephen Harper's Majority! The government doesn't have to give a fuck about anything aside staying in power, because what are you going to do about it, huh? Four years is an awfully long time.