There was a short news item last week, announcing that the federal government had decided unilaterally that Attawapiskat First Nation owed it $1.8-million dollars for housing “overpayment” and would have to pay it back. This week’s swearing in of new Toronto Mayor John Tory and his declaration that Toronto faces a “housing crisis and a transit crisis” made me think of these two events together.

Attawakiskat is an impoverished, remote community where the wind and snow will be battering tiny makeshift homes that are full of mould and have little insulation. Most of the community is unemployed, and most of the budget comes in the form of federal handouts. The amount of the handout is decided by bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa, and can be cut at any time. It is a classic colonial arrangement, despite Mr Harper’s now infamous comment that “Canada has no history of colonialism.”

Chief Teresa Spence had the temerity to declare a state of emergency and to go on a hunger strike to protest conditions in her community and the continuing neglect of her community by the colonial government. For this she was subject to a torrent of abuse and punished by the government.

Attawapiskat is not alone – there are more than 600 bands covered by the Indian Act and for most of them housing is a big problem, money is constantly short, and Ottawa retains all the powers to turn its support on and off.

John Tory has just become the mayor of the largest city in Canada, and at first blush it seems absurd to compare Toronto and Attawapiskat. But hear me out for a moment. Toronto’s powers are set out in provincial legislation. It is a “creature of the province.” Since 1996, the province has downloaded housing to the city, something the federal government started doing a good decade before.

Housing is the real orphan of public policy in Canada, and few provinces have filled the void left by the federal departure decades ago. The result is a real crisis – of affordability, adequacy, quality, and homelessness. The Supreme Court will soon be considering whether shelter is a right in Canada.

There is a terrible irony that many families leave Attawapiskat because there’s no housing, and come to cities where the crisis is different, but not necessarily better. John Tory is not likely to go on a hunger strike, but he will quickly discover that the biggest piece of furniture in his office will be a begging bowl. He does not have the means, or the taxing power, to solve the two biggest problems on his doorstep – transit and housing – and ultimately all he can do is ask Queen’s Park and Ottawa to help him out. He can no more fashion his own plan to solve these issues than fly to the moon.

So we have a third, underlying crisis – a “crisis of governance.” Municipal and aboriginal governments share the problem that they have neither the means nor the powers to address the challenges their citizens face, with the result that they are in a state of dependency, with all the resentments and dysfunction that brings.

It’s time to divide up the fiscal pie differently, to ensure the right revenue streams are going to the right orders of government, with all the transparency and accountability citizens want and need. Where there is corruption and waste, root it out, but stop relying on paternalism and colonialism as a way of governing. Give the people of Toronto and the people of Attawapiskat the means to resolve their problems, and let their governments face their citizens with the same degree of responsibility and accountability.

A Special to the Globe and Mail**

Photo Credit: Oakland Ross