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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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