Starting to sort out the Attawapiskat numbers

How much money would it take to fix the housing crisis on reserves?
A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Dollar figures will never tell the whole dispiriting story of Attawapiskat, Ont., of course, but you’ve got to start someplace.

For the federal government, it seems to me, there’s a straightforward question that must be answered right away, and another much more difficult one that demands longer-term vision. Money is at the core of both:

Firstly, how much would it take to fix the housing crisis, in Attawapiskat and similar remote First Nations communities, if spending is properly managed for a change?

Secondly, is more needed to provide a decent life in remote reserves , or is current funding sufficient if it isn’t squandered, or is the whole notion of trying to sustain these communities a mistake?

The first question is tricky enough, but obviously the second is far more fraught.

Stephen Harper seemed to be mixing up the two when he tossed out the figure $90 million as overall federal spending in the community of about 1,700 since the Tories came into office in 2006.

Less than five per cent of the $90 million the Prime Minister referred to was earmarked for building or renovating homes. But lousy housing is, in fact, the only reason we’re paying attention to Attawapiskat just now. So did Harper mean to suggest that the band leadership might have insulated shacks by siphoning off federal funds designated for, say, education? I have no idea.

What is clear is that Attawapiskat received $4.3 million in federal funding for housing from 2006-07 to 2010-11, according to a table released to the media by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Is that a lot or a little? Hard to say, but a point of comparison might be helpful here.

So consider the nearby First Nations community of Kashechewan, which has about Attawapiskat’s population and was the subject of a similar burst of anguished national attention over lousy living conditions back in 2005. According to figures provided to me by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Kashechewan received $27.4 million for housing over the same five-year period—more than six times Attawapiskat’s housing allocation.

I’ve asked the department if there’s an explanation for the big difference and will post answers when they are provided. One possibility is that saturation media coverage of Kashechewan’s woes in 2005 resulted in extra funding. That $27.4 million was enough to renovate 78 existing homes and constructed 55 new ones in Kashechewan, and the federal government spent another $16.1 million over the same period building a dyke in the flood-prone community, and $9.6 million to clean up a school that burned and provide temporary school facilities.

Given Keshechewan’s recent history, Attawapiskat might get a major bump in funding for housing and other infrastructure. No doubt that would help. A note of caution, though, about how definitive that solution might turn out to be: Kashechewan’s chief told me last week that acute housing shortages persist in his community.

I’ve said the Prime Minister’s wielding of that $90-million, total five-year spending figure wasn’t much use. That’s mainly because I think the way to look at Attawapiskat’s immediate situation is to keep our focus in the short term on the pressing need for decent housing.

Still, there’s no denying that a broader look at spending on remote reserves would also make sense, although preferably not in a crisis atmosphere. This is a familiar, racially charged debate. Does it make sense to keep pouring money—even if spending could somehow be much better managed—into communities where the prospect of economic development and employment often appears so dismal?

Direct federal spending in 2010-11 in Attawapiskat, as has been widely reported, totaled $15.9 million. That includes, for instance, $6.6 million for education and $1.3 million to run the band council and administration.

Many Attawapiskat residents also collect welfare administered by the provincial government through the Ontario Works program. (Under a 1965 agreement, Ottawa reimburses Ontario for the bulk of welfare payments to First National communities in the province.) Ontario Works tells me 443 households in Attawapiskat received a total of $3.9 million in 2010-11.

(A single Ontario Works recipient is eligible to get a maximum of $599 this month; those collecting welfare north of the 50th parallel can get a bit more to cover basic needs and shelter, typically $156 extra.)

The housing needs of Attawapiskat and similar communities demand immediate and sustained attention. In upcoming talks between the federal government and First Nations leaders, making progress on that narrowly defined problem will be much harder if it gets blended too much into more wide-ranging discussions on what to do about isolated, impoverished reserve communities.

But once the the housing issue has been properly addressed, the right thing to do—no matter how politically uncomfortable—would be to finally face the question of whether it makes sense to go on indefinitely using direct federal funding and welfare payments to sustain communities where the prospect of most people finding jobs remains bleak.