Reporters barred from site of Spence's hunger strike
Published Tuesday, January 8, 2013 8:12AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, January 8, 2013 12:15PM EST
Reporters were asked Monday whether they were "friend or foe" by supporters of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, and were turned away when they said they were journalists hoping to ask questions about the leaked audit of finances at her northern Ontario reserve.
Spence has been on a hunger strike on Victoria Island since Dec. 11, subsisting mainly on fish broth while demanding a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper, herself and other First Nations leaders.
The location had been open to journalists, supporters and opposition party politicians for weeks, but that appeared to change on Monday and Tuesday.
"We're all being turned away. They will not let us into the campsite anymore, that's a result of the independent audit because reporters are asking questions about it and want to get her response to the audit," said CTV's Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife.
Fife said he was first turned away Monday, just hours after learning about the audit's content. He was again barred entry on Tuesday.
"They not only locked the door but one of the natives who was guarding the door would say 'friend or foe?' A friend was someone who was native, a foe was regarded as the media," Fife said.
On Monday, an audit was leaked to journalists in an apparent attempt to discredit Spence ahead of a Friday meeting between Harper and First Nations leaders, including Spence.
After wading into the First Nation's books, Deloitte and Touche LLP found that out of 505 transactions, more than 400 were not properly documented. On average, 81 per cent of the reserve's files did not have supporting documents, while 60 per cent had no documentation or reason for payment recorded.
In an attached letter dated Aug. 28, 2012 and addressed to Spence, Deloitte and Touche said they were unable to conclude whether Attawapiskat's funds had been spent correctly.
"There is no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds, including the use of funds for housing," the firm stated, referring to the reserve's lack of supporting documentation as "inappropriate for any recipient of public funds."
The audit indirectly took aim at federal authorities tasked with overseeing funding.
It was noted that Attawapiskat was struggling to record and manage previous financial obligations, contrary to government loan eligibility requirements. As well, the report found that inspectors with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation had observed deteriorating housing conditions on the reserve but did not alert Aboriginal Affairs during the period under audit.
The Attawapiskat chief has been on a liquids-only hunger strike since Dec. 11, demanding government action on First Nations treaty rights and other issues.
Last week, Harper announced he would be meeting with First Nations leaders on Jan. 11 and Spence was welcome to attend. He described the meeting as a follow-up to similar meetings he held a year ago.
On Monday, Spence said she also wants parts of the recently passed omnibus budget bill repealed as soon as Parliament resumes at the end of the month.
"We are asking that the legislation related to (native) lands encoded in Bill C-45 must be rescinded," she said in a release.
It's unclear if or how the latest developments will affect the tone of the meeting, which stakeholders hope will help strengthen Ottawa's relationship with Canada's First Nations communities.
Fife said Spence's demands are largely at odds with other Assembly of First Nations leaders who are focused mainly on issues such as education, economic development, jobs and treaty rights.
Spence, by contrast, wants to discuss Bill C-45, the budget-implementation document which raised concerns over its changes to the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act and Environmental Assessment Act and their which impact on reserve lands and waterways. Those changes were the impetus for the Idle No More movement, which was started last October by four Saskatchewan women who were concerned about what the legislation would mean for First Nations groups.
Spence's hunger strike has become a flash point for the movement, which has spurred dozens of flash mobs, demonstrations and rail and road blockades across Canada.
Spence's spokespeople said Monday that the release of the Attawapiskat audit is an attempt to distract the public from the bigger issues at hand.
Her common-law partner and co-manager of Attawapiskat, Clayton Kennedy, said there are no allegations of "misappropriation or anything like that."
Kennedy defended his and Spence's reported combined household income of about $250,000 a year, saying: "I think it's adequate for the job that is being done."