Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Keeseekoose: The Tories Stumble on One, Recover in Two

If people want to know why voters don't take the Conservatives seriously, take a look at this exchange in the Commons yesterday between Tory MP Jim Prentice and Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott:

Mr. Jim Prentice (Calgary Centre-North, CPC): Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development said that the Keeseekoose First Nation was the subject of routine audits. I have a copy of the band's educational bank account records and there is nothing routine that I can see.

There was $600,000 stolen from the children's education fund and money spent in Santa Monica, California and in Hollywood at an exclusive jewellery store. Stealing money from school children seems perhaps routine to the minister, all in a day's work for a Liberal. Where is the forensic audit?

Hon. Andy Scott (Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, first nations governments take accountability very seriously.

My department has advised me that this first nation identified financial irregularities in 2002 and 2003. The first nation acted appropriately. It called in the RCMP. Charges were laid. The matter is now before the courts.

Here is where the Mr. Prentice screws up:

Mr. Prentice: The issue is, Mr. Speaker, what does this government take seriously? Three years after this matter was brought to the attention of the department, there has been no audit and there has been no prosecution, just more stolen money and this minister once again missing in action.

Is this not just one more big cover-up to protect someone, to protect the former chief, the defeated Liberal candidate?

I highlight the phrase in Mr. Prentice's question because it illustrates my point: in the quest to score political points by promulgating his theory of Librano protection, Mr. Prentice did not pay attention to the Minister's answer.

"Charges were laid. The matter is before the courts." If Mr. Prentice was on the ball, he would have dismissed the response as inadequate: charges against whom? What charges, specifically? And what steps are being taken (i.e. more vigorous auditing, rule tightening, etc.) to ensure this doesn't happen again? But no; Mr. Prentice relies on his script too much, and so a potentially strong attack against a weak minister becomes discredited.

Sometimes, though, ignoring a response can be deliberate. Witness these follow-up questions from MPs Garry Breitkreuz and Tom Lukiwski:

Mr. Garry Breitkreuz (Yorkton—Melville, CPC): Mr. Speaker, it is obvious that there is a cover-up taking place at Keeseekoose, but that is not a surprise because the Liberals do not want anyone to know what is going on at the reserve.

The Indian affairs department spent $9 million to build a school for only 250 students. How can a school for 250 students cost that much? We know that over $600,000 was stolen from the school account. How much of that $9 million for a new school was stolen from the children of Keeseekoose? What is the minister trying to hide?

The Minister: Mr. Speaker, as I have said many times, the first nation reported this to the RCMP, which investigated. Charges have been laid. It is before the courts.

Mr. Tom Lukiwski (Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, CPC): Mr. Speaker, bank records show that money from the St. Phillip's school account was withdrawn from at least five different casinos in Saskatchewan. In fact, in Casino Regina alone there were over 40 separate withdrawals totalling over $18,000.

When the Liberals heard these allegations of theft and corruption, did they call the police? No. They called a nomination meeting because they had just found the perfect Liberal candidate. When will the minister admit he is turning his back on the children of St. Phillip's school?

The Minister: Mr. Speaker, this first nation did the appropriate thing when financial irregularities were found. It called the RCMP, an investigation was conducted and charges were laid. This is now before the courts.

What these two MPs did, that Mr. Prentice did not, was take Mr. Scott's response into account. Note that they don't accuse the government of not mounting a prosecution, but refer to other -- er -- activities in line of their theory. The two are not mutually exclusive.

You see, Mr. Scott's response is legally safe, but timid as a defence; certainly it's not strong enough for the Opposition to drop the matter altogether. The Tories' questions are not meant to elicit a stronger response from the Minister. They're meant to put specific allegations on the Parliamentary record, the gravity of which highlights the problems of Mr. Scott's management.