REGINA - Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government is disappointed with a Federal Court ruling that says it was "unreasonable in all circumstances" to appoint an outside manager to a troubled Ontario First Nation.
The court ruled Wednesday that a third party was the wrong way to address a humanitarian crisis last fall in Attawapiskat.
Duncan would not say if it was a mistake to send in someone to take over the books.
"You know that's a very difficult question. I want to think about that a little more," the minister said after a speech Thursday in Regina.
"That was, um, you know there was an emergency situation which we would end up wearing if we didn't get some things done, so we wanted to get some things done.
"The important thing is that the health and safety of the community was looked after. We did get the housing accomplished and we got the people in place. In retrospect, that was the most important thing."
The James Bay community of 2,000 declared a state of emergency last October after a severe housing shortage forced more than two dozen families to live in temporary, mouldy shelters, some without insulation or plumbing.
The Conservative government sent in a third-party manager amid suggestions from Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the band had been mismanaging federal funds in the face of the housing crisis.
The manager, Jacques Marion, was withdrawn in April. But the Attawapiskat First Nation persisted in its lawsuit against the government, anxious to get the courts to "refute'' Harper's suggestion that the band had been mismanaging federal money and to have Marion's appointment declared unlawful.
Federal Court Judge Michael Phelan said the decision to appoint someone to take over the books was made without any indication that there was a problem with the way the band was being managed.
The court also concluded, however, that there was no political malice in the decision — on the part of either Prime Minister Stephen Harper or members of his cabinet — nor any intent to embarrass the northern Ontario reserve or its members.
New Democrat ethics critic Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, said Duncan should know by now that it was a mistake.
"He took it to court with a crack team of lawyers and got spanked and he still needs more time to think about what happened," Angus said in a telephone interview from Toronto.
"This was an international humanitarian disaster ... and the day that finally action happened we had the Red Cross going in, we had international media paying attention. John Duncan sent in an accountant to seize the books.
"By now he should know that was a really dumb decision. The courts reaffirmed it."
The minister could not say if the government will appeal the ruling.
"We have until some time this fall to make that decision, so we're not going to jump to a conclusion," he said.
"We don't know what the consequences might be. We have 11 third-party managers across the country. In some cases, they're quite welcome; in some cases maybe not quite so welcome. But there's a variety of circumstances at work here and it's not a one-size-fits-all situation at all."
Duncan also said the government believes it has a constructive relationship with the Attawapiskat First Nation.
"We've got many plans that we want to carry out and we work with 633 First Nations. Not everything goes smooth every time, but we think that going forward we'll be able to work very well with the chief and counsel."