OTTAWA—The federal government is concerned a damning independent audit of how federal funds are spent in Attawapiskat will inflame tensions in advance of Friday’s meeting between the prime minister and First Nations leaders, says a source who has seen the report.
The government, however, says it is not deliberately withholding the document and it will be released soon through “normal channels.”
The audit, by Deloitte and Touche, is “severely critical” of how Chief Theresa Spence and the Attawapiskat Band Council have spent about $90 million in federal funds over the past five years, according to a source who spoke to the Star but who refused to be more specific about its recommendations.
“The situation right now is pretty tense. You saw the shutdowns (Saturday),” said the official, referring to protests that included a blockade of the railwaybetween Toronto and Montreal that stranded more than a thousand VIA Rail travellers on four trains. “The dilemma now is this is a tense situation, and the government is extremely concerned how this will be perceived because it (the audit) is bad.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office denied the government was deliberately withholding the audit. Communications director Andrew MacDougall would only reiterate Harper’s comments last week that the federal department of aboriginal affairs has a process to follow when it receives an audit, and that the government intends to release the document “along the normal schedule which we anticipate is in the not too distant future. This is just a normal course of business as the prime minister said on Friday.”
MacDougall said Harper will be joined at Friday’s meeting by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, parliamentary secretary for aboriginal affairs Greg Rickford, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, and Treasury Board President Tony Clement, who is responsible for the government’s spending, but who MacDougall noted is responsible for economic development in northern Ontario.
The Assembly of First Nations, led by Grand Chief Shawn Atleo, will lead a delegation expected to number about 30.
For the federal government, the convergence of the rolling First Nations protests, Spence’s hunger strike, and now the audit’s damning findings have created a potentially explosive mix.
Saturday’s blockade was part of the Idle No More protests, which began as a grassroots movement objecting to federal budget measures that First Nations activists say gut aboriginal, environmental and treaty right protections.
Initially launched via social media by a group of four Saskatchewan women, the movement has taken on a life of its own, with support emerging across the country and demonstrations popping up abroad.
On Dec. 11, Chief Spence separately launched her hunger strike, aimed at what she says is federal inaction on her reserve’s concerns. She had demanded a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Governor General and First Nations leaders.
Yet after Harper announced Friday he would meet on Jan. 11 with a delegation of the Assembly of First Nations, which Spence said she would attend, she refused to abandon her fast.
Her spokesman Danny Metatawabin could not be reached Sunday.
Regional Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, which includes Attawapiskat, said in an email Sunday he was “not at liberty to talk about the audit since the First Nation and AANDC (the department of aboriginal affairs) are in the midst of discussions on the audit findings.”
He added “the focus should be on the Jan. 11 meeting.”
Last year at the height of the Attawapiskat housing crisis when Ottawa agreed to deliver nearly two dozen new modular homes to the northern Ontario reserve, the Conservative government ordered a review of how Spence and the Attawapiskat Band Council had been spending federal dollars that flow to that reserve. The auditors completed their work in the late fall and it was submitted to the Harper government and shared with Spence and the band council.
The audit apparently makes a number of recommendations to the federal government, but according to the source who has seen the audit its findings are mainly directed at Spence and her council.
The audit was submitted to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and reviewed by a departmental audit committee. It should have been posted to the departmental website by now, if the usual 60-day release timetable was followed.