Canadian Consulting Engineer

Where does the money go …?

Brian Pallister, Alliance MP for Portage-Lisgar, stood up in the House of Commons in May and denounced the federal government's double standard towards First Nations. If the 218 boiled water advisorie...

July 1, 2003  Canadian Consulting Engineer

Brian Pallister, Alliance MP for Portage-Lisgar, stood up in the House of Commons in May and denounced the federal government’s double standard towards First Nations. If the 218 boiled water advisories affecting aboriginal communities were happening in non-native communities, he said, it would be seen as such a crisis it would prompt immediate action.

Pallister also pointed out that the dozen federal government departments that deal with First Nation issues are spending 15 times more on communications (i.e. public relations) than the government is spending to ensure First Nations have access to clean water.

The Liberals replied that the federal government recently allotted a special fund of $600 million over the next five years for water and wastewater infrastructure for First Nations. However, First Nations themselves say they need much more (see “Clean Living,” p. 20). And when I spoke to a councillor at Cat Lake near Sioux Lookout, Ontario, a community that’s been under a boil water advisory for two years, he was doubtful whether the reserves would see much difference even with the $600 million. “The bureaucrats will take most of that,” he laughed. The federal Department of Indian Affairs, the Assembly of First Nations, the tribal councils and their technical services units — they all have to run offices and programs, he explained, so they will all take a cut.

A spokeperson at the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa tells me that there are three federal government departments involved in water on First Nations: Environment Canada to oversee the water sources; Health Canada to oversee water quality; and Indian Affairs in charge of the actual infrastructure. The departments tend not to communicate, she said, because they all want to protect their own turf.

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I believe in the virtues of strong government and I don’t mind paying taxes to redress the in-built inequalities of our social system. But even I’m becoming jaded over how the federal government spends our money. Besides the duplication between departments, I’ve seen lavish spending on publicity, ill-thought-out cultural and make-work programs — not to mention spending on endless studies. At a dinner in Toronto recently, a self-styled “Ottawa Bureaucrat” from Canada Post joked: “I’m from the city where we ask, “Yes, it’s right in practice, but does it work in theory?”

Studies are fine if they’re focused and yield tangible results. But too often the strategizing becomes an academic exercise that takes on a life of its own. Visit the Indian Affairs’ web site, for example, and you find the 2003-2004 Report on Plans and Priorities for Indian Affairs Canada and Canadian Polar Commission. The “priorities” take 37 pages to explain. The document evolves according to its own arcane structure: Global Circle/strategic outcomes (vision); Collaborative Circle/reach and direct outcomes; Operational Circle/activities and outputs. It reminds me of the re-engineering exercises that companies in the private sector went through during the early 1990s: we got so caught up in defining and redefining our strategies, there was no energy left to tackle their implementation.

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