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How much do you cost the government?

Posted on 3 December 2011

→ The finances of the Attawapiskat reserve have been placed under third-party control, in part to figure out where $90 million of federal government money went in the last five years. But how much is $90 million anyways? And how much money does the government spend on you?

I’ve only been sort-of following the Attawapiskat housing crisis story, but my favourite thing I’ve read on it is the blog post called “Dealing with comments about Attawapiskat.” It is excellent, and I will place a link to it at the bottom of this post so you can finish reading what I have here and then move on to it.

Though there are many parts of said post that are insightful and thought-provoking, there is one portion that made me want to do a bit of research of my own. The author links to a Canadian Press article in which Stephen Harper tells the Commons:

“This government has spent some $90 million since coming to office just on Attawapiskat… That’s over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community.”

And then she rightly points out:

“First, please note that $90 million is a deceptive number.  It refers to federal funding received since Harper’s government came into power in 2006.  In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Attawapiskat received $17.6 million in federal funds (PDF).  The document linked to shows the breakdown of federal funds in case you wanted to know how much is allocated to things like medical transportation, education, maternal health care and so on.

Thus, $90 million refers to the total of an average of about $18 million per year in federal funding since 2006. (emphasis mine)

So $90 million over five years gets you about $18 million per year. That means Harper’s reference to $50,000 for “every man, woman, and child” becomes $10,000 per person per year. Which still seems like a lot, but it got me wondering– is it? After all, do you know how much the government’s spent on you?

The big ones: health care, education, and social services

I’m not going to go into things that municipalities would normally pay for (water, garbage collection, etc). Instead, I’m going to focus on money that would come from the provincial and federal government to serve “every man, woman, and child.” The reason I’m doing this is because Attawapiskat, being a reserve, derives most of its external government funding from the feds. Non-reserves get money from the province for things like health care and education, but under the Indian Act those items are to come to reserves directly from the federal government. So Attawapiskat would be using the money it gets from the federal government to fund items that, in cities, would be funded by both the provincial AND the federal governments.

So let’s take just three of those items that the provincial government provides for in B.C. and the federal government provides for in Attawapiskat– health care, education, and social services– and break them down.

I’m going to use numbers provided in B.C.’s 2011 budget to rough out these amounts. Right in there, the province brags about having the second lowest per-capita spending on health care in the country- $3,925. This is the biggest item, and it comes to $17.5 billion total. If I divide that 17.5 billion by 3,925, I can guesstimate they’re working with about 4.5 million people. I’m actually rounding that number up so the per-person spending estimates I come up with are low-balled.

Next: education. B.C. is proudly spending over $8,000 per student grades K-12. Total amount is $11.3 billion. Divided amongst 4.5 million people– $2,511.11. Let’s call it an even $2,500.

Finally, social services. Total cost in B.C. is $3.4 billion, or about $755 a person.

Now let’s add it up

To recap: Stephen Harper is disappointed the $10,000 per person the federal government sends to Attawapiskat every year isn’t solving the housing crisis. So upset, in fact, that the federal government has put finances under 3rd party control and ordered an audit. Meanwhile, in B.C. the government is spending roughly $7,100 per person on just three items: education, health care, and social services. That’s before the $2100/person the province spends on “all other items” and money that comes in from the feds.

So as far as I can tell looking at the numbers, that $90 million in Attawapiskat isn’t an excessive amount. In fact, it seems to be about on par with what Canadians everywhere (or at least in B.C.) have “spent” on them by the appropriate levels of government. I’m assuming, of course, that Attawapiskat receives roughly an equivalent amount in infrastructure grants for roads and the like from the federal government that other communities do– that is, I’m assuming that $90 million refers only to normal funding, and that the federal government has given one or two infrastructure grants over the past six years, as well. If they haven’t, then Attawapiskat could well be below average. I’m also comparing to B.C. Ontario spends considerably more per person on health care. So there could be differences there. But again, these are rough numbers, but looking at them, $10,000 per person a year doesn’t (to me) appear to out-of-line.

So why the audit?

I’m curious what the reaction from the general public would be if the federal government seized financial control from any form of government other than a reserve. I know for sure it wouldn’t stand for a province. But what if the federal or provincial government tried to take control of a city’s finances? Of your city’s finances? And then started throwing out numbers about how much they’ve already spent on you as justificiation. I mean, it’s not as if there are that many levels of government out there that aren’t running deficits of some form or another. Should they be allowed to be in charge of themselves? Why the different standards?

I’d also love it if anyone had some better numbers to work with. I’m really roughing out per person costs here, but there could well be more reliable statistics. How much public money does the average Canadian get for healthcare? For roads? For arts and culture and tourism grants? If you’ve found any of these statistics, please do let me know. Comments are below, and here I am on Twitter.

Oh, and as promised, here’s that link again. I highly recommend you read it:

Dealing With Comments About Attawapiskat

See also: Stereotypes



Update 1:

Maclean’s Aaron Wherry posts this exchange from the Commons between the NDP’s Nicole Turmel and Stephen Harper:

Turmel. … Outside of first nations, social standing in Canada is about $18,000 per year per person (emphasis mine). According to his own numbers, federal spending in Attawapiskat per person per year is about half of this amount. How is that possible? Why is he blaming the community?

Harper. … this government has made tens of millions of dollars of investments in this community, infrastructure investments of over $50,000 for every man, woman and child.”

Wherry adds:

“In using the phrase “infrastructure investments,” the Prime Minister overreached. As the government’s own numbers show, the total infrastructure spending in Attawapiskat is about $28.6 million. Divided by a population of 1,700, that’s just under $17,000 per person (emphasis mine).”

So I’m again not seeing where the people of Attawapiskat are getting any more government money than your average Canadian.

Update 2:

A pretty good article by Kathryn Blaze Carlson in the National Post gets into the debate over how or whether it will be possible for Attawapiskat to be economically viable in the long term. It also contains this:

“The province also invests more than $4-million each year, and the community earned more than $3-million from the First Nations-run Casino Rama, according to a federal audit.”

So another $4 million from the province divided by 1,700 makes an extra $2300 a person (again rounding down). I’m not sure if the casino should count towards money “given” by government, though. If it’s run by the reserve and generates its own profits, I’m guessing it shouldn’t. I’m only looking at money gives the people of Attawapiskat versus the money it gives any other Canadian.

Filed under: Best Of, Canada, Indigenous, politics

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How much does the average Canadian cost government?…

I ask this is the context of Attawapiskat, the reserve in Ontario that’s now lost control of its finances and is being audited. Harper has cited $50,000 per person, but that’s over five years– so $10,000 per person per year. Is that out of line? I’…

Posted by Quora on 3 December 2011 @ 7am

Well we can do all the math we want (which makes this post an important contribution to the debate), but whatever the numbers, we can’t escape the fact that value-for-money for these people on this reserve is not being achieved.

Posted by Jpols on 3 December 2011 @ 12pm

That’s a good point, and one that can be taken multiple ways. Does the fact they are not getting value for the money indication that they need more money, or indication that the community is not economically viable? And then what?

But before we can find an anywhere-close-to-informed answer to those questions, I think it’s important to move beyond the assumption (that some, hopefully a vocal minority, have) that the reserve has been getting a ton of money and it’s all their fault if they aren’t living in mansions because “they don’t pay taxes” and their whole lives “are subsidized” by “hard-working Canadians.” All these are sentiments I’ve seen expressed again and again, but I’m really not seeing any numbers that indicate truth to them. I’ve yet to see any indication that Attawapiskat has been getting any more money per person than any other group of people in the country.

Posted by Andrew on 3 December 2011 @ 12pm

If they got more $ there is no assurance it would make any difference. In large part because, “It’s all their fault” would be refined by most not to the band members to the band administration. That is why this whole specific reserve issue is tied into the Conservative’s present bill to try to open up band council operations. Of course, shining the light on a problem doesn’t really address the problem.

Posted by Jpols on 3 December 2011 @ 4pm

Thanks for the updates. The funding is not truly “per person,” because it is not going to the band members sufficiently. In a way, it is too easy to only blame the government of Canada (as is the main narrative) and the debate about how much money is optimal will not get us anywhere. It’s no help now to the poor people there. True reform has to look everywhere, including Harper and the PMs before him, now, to the NDP member of that riding for the past 7 years, to all of us, and to the native leaders. (By the way, band members will tell you this last point as much as middle class white guys will).

I’ve also read there are 19 councillors for 2000 people. Perhaps too
there should not have been a new hockey rink built with the funding when
there are other priorities. Also I don’t know the details but the reserve gets a fair amount of money from user fees.

Posted by Jpols on 4 December 2011 @ 4pm

even assuming your numbers are correct i think you missed the point completely. this may come a suprize to you but i think you suffer from liberial racism. let me explain. native people can take care of themselves just fine, they didn’t in this case. you seem to be calling for the white man to come save the little indians again cause they can’t do it on their own. do you really think the band didn’t know what the living conditions were like in their own community, yet they said and did nothing. why? thats the issue. you think your enlightened but it is these kinds of beliefs that have caused most of the problems on the reserves in the first place.

Posted by Mustreadthis on 10 December 2011 @ 7am

I am going out on a limb to reply to this. I’m going to ask you to follow-up with language that’s a little less aggressive and, frankly, racist.

1. I don’t think I am missing the point. The point is that the money spent is being portrayed as a sufficient or even excessive amount of money. My point is, it’s not. It’s average– possibly less than average.

2. I’m not actually calling for anyone to do anything. I AM suggesting that the Canadian government hasn’t spent excessive amounts of money on Attawapiskat. I’m doing this because up until the point I wrote this, the general tone of debate was “holy cow, look how much money we’ve spent and they’ve wasted it!” whereas the reality is the money spent was average for government to spend on any community– potentially less than average. It was an attempt to start the discussion on that ground, rather than the assumption that Attawapiskat was getting way more money than other communities.

3. Even if I were calling on someone to do something, it’s not “the white man.” And it’s definitely not to save “the little indians.” To use those words in the same place you call me racist is just ridiculous.

4. “do you really think the band didn’t know what the living conditions were like in their own community, yet they said and did nothing. why?”

The band did know what their living conditions were like. It’s been an ongoing issue that they’ve been raising over the last decade. The latest state of emergency that they called was the third in three years. 
I have no doubt the people of Attawapiskat or any other group of people can look after themselves just fine. That said, we live in a country where people receive funds from the government for things like infrastructure, education, and health care. I assume you live in Canada and receive these benefits. The point of my post is to highlight the fact that ALL Canadians receive government money for these things, and the amount that Attawapiskat received over the last six years was about on par with what anyone else got. Not excessive amounts. 

Your claim that the band said and did nothing does prove that you haven’t done much research into this issue, as the opposite has been stated in pretty much every media report on this story. I sincerely hope you take the time to look a little more deeply into this issue.

Posted by Andrew on 10 December 2011 @ 9am

Well look if you think that the town Attawapiskat was well run good on you. Most people don’t. I understand your point that it is expensive to run a town, thats valid, but to your greater point I live in a small town and the houses don’t look like the ones in Attawapiskat. Remenber, people don’t have to wait for government money to fix up their houses. They can work and use their own money. Also friends and family can help out. That’s why I said you sounded racist. The community leaders in Attawapiskat are men and women not children. To take away their accountability is to treat them as less than adults and that is racist. Clearly something went very wrong in that town and to immediately outside the town for answers is also alittle racist.  

Posted by Mustreadthis on 10 December 2011 @ 11am

I don’t want to get into this too much, because it’s outside the scope of my overall point. But there are a lot of reasons that Attawapiskat had these problems, and it’s not necessarily immediately attributable to the action or inaction of the local government.

Key thing to remember moving forward with this: there were independent audits of the community’s budget every year. They are publicly available and viewable online.

That being the case, you have to wonder why the government immediately started casting the spectre of doubt on the community’s ability to handle the money and appointed an expensive third-party manager. I doubt that would be done if your town had a housing crisis. I’m guessing the first response would be “fix this”, then look into what went wrong– not look into where the money went before helping out.

In either case, there may have been a problem at a governance level. There may not have been. But it’s interesting that when something like this happens in a First Nations-run community, the immediate response tends more towards “they must have been mismanaging” than it does for other communities.

Posted by Andrew on 12 December 2011 @ 11am

When I wrote my first post on your blog I was trying to be sarcastic in tone not angry. I’m sure that your heart is in the right place. I used the word racist for several reasons: one, because no one ever thinks they will be called one and no one likes it. If you were in fact saying that people that had questions about what happened in Attawapiskat were racist I wanted to show you how they felt reading your words. Second, if there are people that immediately look to blame locals of Attawap for every problem they face then what about people that who immediately away. Maybe the band council there are corrupt. There people just like every body else. Lastly, Attawapiskat receives a lot of government money and has a small population. The article you used had many inflated figures and purposeful omissions to help the “journalist” make her point. The most glaring was the claim that the community needed 84 million dollars to cover the housing needs of its 2000 inhabitants. Even at 250 thousand a home if you use an average of 5 people per house your basically buying a new home for every person in Attawap. Another fact not mentioned is that property taxes are not paid in Attawap. To Compare Bridgewater N.S. a town with 4 times the population has a yearly budge of 18 million dollars, 12 million of which is paid for by property taxes alone and most of the rest are paid for by community fees and service charges. In addition income tax is not paid for income earned on the reserve which adds to the total “given” to Attawap. Even Casino Rama is not taxed. I could go on but let me end by saying this. Maybe the reason people want to know why things go bad on the reserves is because there kind of set up for success.

Posted by Mustreadthis on 14 December 2011 @ 8am

To be taken seriously, you should learn to spell, improve your  To be honest, you’re response sounds exactly like someone whose research has been pulled directly from the headlines.  Dig a little more, then come back with a more suitable (and hopefully less racist sounding) response.  Grammar and spell check would also help.

Posted by Winged_whacker on 10 December 2011 @ 10am

*** and I should learn to delete the first half sentence of a previous comment…

Posted by Winged_whacker on 10 December 2011 @ 10am

Ahhh, your mean. Don’t talk like a dick Whacker

Posted by Mustreadthis on 10 December 2011 @ 10am

Instead of only looking at what is “spent” on this reserve, I would also be interested in seeing levels of consumption-what the band members and councilors are able to buy. This would be another interesting way to measure the situation there.

Posted by Jpols on 14 December 2011 @ 9am

That would be good to see. I know I’ve seen groceries are really inflated in price. Probably because there are no roads in or out, just planes. It would all raise costs. Which then raises a question around the viability of these sorts of communities, wherever or whoever lives there….

Posted by Andrew on 14 December 2011 @ 1pm

[…] Stereotypes is tied with a later entry, also about Aboriginal issues, but this one more tangible. How Much Do You Cost the Government also has 152 visitors, and is simply asking in the midst of the Attawapiskat controversey over […]

Posted by My Five Most Popular Posts of 2011 | on 2 January 2012 @ 2am

No more than once a week, promise.

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