Sunday, 18 December 2011

Northern reserves have been separated from their resources

Northern reserves have been separated from their resources

A dominant motif in the Canadian discourse regarding first nations is that reserve communities, particularly those in remote areas, are economically unviable.

People should move from communities such as Attawapiskat to where they can get a job and become economically self-reliant like the rest of us, the argument commonly goes.

Attawapiskat is now the object of blame-casting by a federal government that is itself responsible for capacity-building, financial oversight and adequate funding of infrastructure and services in first-nations communities. Canada assumed this responsibility when it unilaterally appropriated lands formerly occupied by the inhabitants of many such communities.

Let's be clear about what reserves are. They are a government invention. Reserves were created by government to concentrate, for administrative purposes, peoples who roamed those landscapes and exploited their resources.

So perhaps the reasonable question is: Why is Attawapiskat not viable?

It's not viable because the community was separated from the economic resource base that would otherwise sustain it.

Could Prince George be viable if it were denied the vast forest hinterland that sustains it? Arguing that Prince George is viable because its economy is sustained by forest resources appropriated from around Fort Ware, while Fort Ware is by some magical thinking then declared economically unviable, begs some re-thinking.

The forest, mineral and energy resource base surrounding Attawapiskat was appropriated by the Crown, which receives the rents from its exploitation by corporations. A minuscule proportion of those rents is returned to the original occupants.

Let me quote the Ontario provincial government from 2009: "Northern Ontario is one of the world's top mining regions, generating 75 per cent of the provinces' $9.6-billion mine production in 2008 and most of the record-setting $660 million in exploration expenditures.

"All of Ontario's 28 metal mines are in the North and some 800 exploration projects are underway in the region," the study says. "Mining is the cornerstone of the North's economy, supporting exportoriented companies with markets worldwide."

Then there are the forest resources, 690,000 square kilometres of them, as yet largely untouched although forestry in Northern Ontario already generates about $15 billion a year.

Northern Ontario, particularly the west side of James Bay where Attawapiskat is located, has "significant hydroelectric potential" adjacent to the energy-hungry markets of Canada's golden triangle and the U.S. northeast.

Tourism brought 7.7 million visitors to Northern Ontario in 2007. This generated $1.4 billion and "opportunities abound to increase nature-based tourism," according to the province. Three major parks are adjacent to Attawapiskat - one of them a polar-bear reserve.

So, Northern Ontario generates about $26 billion a year and promises more. Attawapiskat shares a small fraction of this wealth, is declared economically unviable and is roundly condemned for paying its chief a $50,000 salary while $233,000-a-year cabinet ministers wax pompous.

One Fraser Institute analyst examined administrative salaries at Attawapiskat. He noted salaries of $11.2 million and compared that to the $9.8 million paid the previous year. What he didn't note was that the wage budget for the fiscal year ended in March was in fact $600,000 less than the wage budget in 2007.

He mentioned the chief and 18 councillors.

He didn't mention that the administrative staff responsible for health, education, utilities, public works and government numbered 44.

By comparison, The Fraser Institute, with a declared senior staff of 17 and 25 senior research fellows, reported salaries, projects and office expenses in 2010 of more than $10.8 million, a million more than the $9.8 million reported by Attawapiskat for salaries, honoraria and travel expenses that year.

Perhaps the question that Canadians should be asking of their federal government is why, after a century of responsibility for aboriginal communities that are entirely creatures of Ottawa, is the system such a disgraceful, chaotic, festering mess of bungling, red tape, bureaucratic incompetence and political prevarication? Why are we still blaming the victims of our policies?