People in the Northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat are living in crowded, unsanitary, tents heated by makeshift wood stoves. It has been almost two months since the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a State of Emergency because of the immediate threat to the health of the families living in deplorable conditions. Unfortunately, at this point, winter is coming faster than help in what is being called “Canada’s Third World.”
Appalling Conditions Continue
When interim Liberal leader Bob Rae visited Attawapiskat last week, he told the CBC: “Some of the living conditions here — with the shacks that we’re seeing here — are pretty extreme, but at the same time, it’s certainly not unusual to many [aboriginal] communities across the country.” CBC describes the situation:
Large families remain crammed into cold, mould-stained shacks with no bathroom or running water. More than 90 people live in an old construction trailer with no smoke alarms and doors that are padlocked at night to keep vandals out. Fresh produce is predictably expensive. Oranges, for example, cost more than $10 for a three-pound bag at the local grocery store — when they’re on sale.
The current conditions are simply deplorable and create a significant fire and health hazard, with risks of burns and severe illness.
Photo: Attawapiskat Burn Victim
Federal Government Punishes First Nation with Third Party Management
Instead of immediately sending help for the residents of Attawapiskat to ensure safe and sanitary living conditions, the federal government decided to send a third party manager to oversee their finances. The third party manager isn’t even a crisis manager, he is a bean counter that was brought in to oversee their finances with no apparent fiscal reason for doing so. In the Huffington Post Canada, Andreas Krebs describes the problem:
So, for 10 years, Attawapiskat has had an outside manager — one they agreed to — working with them to ensure fiscal accountability. As Chief Theresa Spence has repeatedly stated, her Nation’s books are open and available for perusal. They have been audited numerous times, and have never shown any accounting irregularities. Like all First Nations, Attawapiskat’s funding is subject to very strict accountability measures, with spending requiring pre-approval by Ottawa. Effectively, First Nations spend a great deal of their time proving to the federal government they have done what they claim to have done with their funding. In fact, Attawapiskat has been meeting these accountability measures, with the help and guidance of their co-manager.
Ultimately, when the community desperately needs help with housing issues, the government is instead punishing them and spending much-needed-funds on accounting exercises.
Some Help Promised
Some minimal help is being promised by the federal government at this time. They have promised to help turn the community’s healing center into a temporary shelter. According to the London Free Press, this will require a significant amount of work because the lodge doesn’t currently have running water or a sewage system. Familes are expected to be able to move into the lodge by December 23rd if the work goes as planned, but Charlie Angus, the Member of Parliament for the area is skeptical: “At this point, it’s going to be Christmas in tents,” he told the London Free Press . The lodge will be used as emergency shelter until the planned arrival of 22 modular homes in mid-January. In addition to government help, the Red Cross has been delivering necessities (generators, sleeping bags, heaters) to the community using $300,000 in donations that it received.
Long Term Solutions Needed
Opposition party leaders and Members of Parliament have visited the reserve and seen the appalling conditions. Liberal leader Bob Rae and aboriginal affairs critical Carolyn Bennett visited the community in December. NDP leader Nycole Turmel visited Attawapiskat along with the community’s Member of Parliament, Charlie Angus, in November. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has no plans to visit and the Aboriginal Affairs Minister may visit sometime in 2012. The fact that Harper has no plans to visit and that not even the responsible minister has visited, clearly shows what a small priority Attawapiskat is for the government.
On the Huffington Post Canada, Krebs concludes that Canadians are displeased with Harper’s approach and that many of them are starting to ask questions about the relationship between the federal government and First Nations communities. He hopes that Canadians asking deep questions will “lead to more constructive and respectful relations to enable First Nations to truly flourish as members of the Canadian federation.”
Right now, however, winter is coming and the bickering needs to stop. The federal government needs to stop playing games and making false statements (e.g. that Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence accepted third party management) and send the help the community needs. If the current model of management and relations between First Nations and the federal government isn’t working, then that needs to be fixed using a collaborative approach. However, the priority right now needs to be ensuring safe living conditions.
Sign the petition to Demand Action for the Attawapiskat First Nation.
Images used with permission from Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament.