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Too much talk, too little action on aboriginal children's issues

The notion that aboriginal communities are like black holes when it comes to government funding was strengthened considerably with the release of the latest scathing report by B.C.'s Children and Youth Representative.

The notion that aboriginal communities are like black holes when it comes to government funding was strengthened considerably with the release of the latest scathing report by B.C.'s Children and Youth Representative.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's investigation of government-funded services for aboriginal youth was highly critical but not particularly shocking. Her main finding was that almost $70 million was given to aboriginal organizations over a dozen years without a shred of evidence that any of it was actually spent on services for young people.

The money was, instead, largely used to pay people to go to meetings and conferences and to do a lot of talking. Turpel-Lafond's report is entitled When Talk Trumped Service, and many people presumably made a lot of money talking about young people without helping them.

She is characteristically blunt in her assessment of what she found, as in this: "There could not be a more confused, unstable and bizarre area of public policy than that which guides aboriginal child and family services in B.C."

Or this: "This story may read more like fiction than truth, but the numbers speak for themselves. Nearly $66 million has been spent without any functional public policy framework, no meaningful financial or performance accountability, and without any actual children receiving additional services because of these expenditures."

No beating around the bush here.

A fundamental problem she uncovered was the B.C. government's decision to treat aboriginal-run care agencies on a "nation-to-nation" basis. As she points out, B.C. is not a "nation," and neither are these agencies.

 The government opted to simply send "staggering expenditures" out the door to organizations that lacked resources or the expertise to fulfil service obligations.

She found that nearly $35 million alone was spent "discussing" something called Regional Aboriginal Authorities.  Essentially, a bunch of meetings were held and reports were done.

But problems facing aboriginal youth - parental addiction, domestic violence, poverty, neglect, mental health, etc. - were not dealt with.

But why this report is not particularly shocking is that this disconnected relationship between governments of various levels and First Nations is evident in other areas. The lack of accountability, the maddening pace of improvements and a political cautiousness are ingrained in the relationship.

For instance, billions of dollars have been spent on treaty negotiations, with precious little to show for all that spending. Again, lawyers and consultants and bands make money via governments but can't point to many accomplishments.

The aboriginal communities receive huge amounts of government funding, yet many of their members are mired in a state of chronic poverty. Health outcomes among aboriginal people are among the worst in the country.

There is a tendency among governments to simply write large cheques for aboriginal groups, as if that assuages any guilt that stems from taking vast tracts of their ancestral lands away from them. There is little followup to ensure money is spent properly or in ways that actually improve things.

But the First Nations must share in the responsibility for this situation. First Nations themselves insist on being treated as quasi-independent nations capable of managing their own affairs, albeit with significant amounts of government funding. Some can and do just that, but in many instances there is a complete failure of leadership among their leaders.

And so we are left with scandalous findings like those uncovered by Turpel-Lafond. She talks about the need to stop directing money into "the big theoretical fixes" and concentrate more on the front-line services.

As she points out, those front-line services have suffered because so much money was rerouted from them in favour of all those meetings and discussions.

There have been many troubling and outrageous reports on various government entities over the years, but this one has to rank as one of the most outrageous.

I'm told things have improved on this front in the last couple of years, and I hope that's true.

But I have a hard believing the basic system of handing government funding over with no accountability or followup will change in any significant way.

Hopefully I will be proven wrong, but given the shameful history of the treatment of First Nations by governments and by some of their own leaders, I'm not betting on it.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C. Email him at