NDP accuses Ottawa of 'punishing' Attawapiskat
Published Thursday, December 1, 2011 11:08PM EST
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the remote community of Attawapiskat requires financial oversight along with emergency shelter, but Opposition MPs continued Thursday to accuse the government of mishandling the ongoing crisis.
With winter approaching and a number of families living in uninsulated shacks, tents or in mold-infested homes, the northern Ontario aboriginal community near James Bay recently declared a state of emergency.
But during a second day of intense questioning in Parliament Thursday, NDP MPs hammered the government for hiring a third-party financial auditor to track the $90 million Ottawa has spent in Attawapiskat since 2006.
"Does the prime minister realize that with this third-party management, the message he is sending is that if you need help, shut your mouth or you will be punished. That's his answer," said Nycole Turmel, the NDP's interim leader.
"It's interesting to see that the prime minster realizes that there are needs there, but he thinks there are accounting needs, instead of the human tragedy that we are seeing there."
Responding, Harper said that the government is working with the community to provide relief, but he stressed that better management of resources is also a key issue.
"It is obvious there continue to be needs. The government is working to fulfill those needs. But the needs are two-fold: there is a need, obviously, for more services and infrastructure. There is also clearly a need for better management," said Harper.
The issue became the focus of a meeting Thursday between Harper and Shawn Atleo, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Atleo said the crisis should be used as a starting point for new relations between aboriginals and the federal Crown, with a summit between the two groups scheduled for January 24 in Ottawa.
CTV's Daniele Hamamdijian has reported that along with squalor and poverty, the Attawapiskat community recently purchased a new Zamboni for cleaning hockey ice. Hamamdijian also reported some questionable travel expenses amassed by the community's leadership.
She also reported that the reserve's co-manager, who is supposed to monitor how government funds are spent, is the common-law partner of the chief.
The Attawapiskat band council declared a state of emergency one month ago, prompting media headlines, political reaction and a visit from the Red Cross, which is delivering sleeping bags and food to the community.
Though Harper has repeatedly said the federal government has spent $90 million in Attawapiskat since 2006, critics say the government simply hasn't done enough.
In fact, Turmel said that the government's annual investment in the community is about half of the average spent on each person in the rest of Canada. Quoting the government's own numbers, Turmel said that the average per-person investment across Canada is about $19,000.
"How is that possible -- why are you blaming the community?" asked Turmel.
Earlier in the day, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government's decision to appoint a third-party manager came because "there are a lot of things that don't add up," such as missing reports and money earmarked for housing.
"There are reports outstanding, we understand there are housing moneys that are unspent, there are a lot of things that don't add up and that show we need to have a departmental official in place, a departmental representative in place," Duncan said.
However, the NDP MP from the area said that Duncan's response is unbecoming of his position as the government's point-man on the aboriginal issue. NDP MP Charlie Angus also took issue with the fact that Duncan has yet to travel to the community and witness the squalid conditions first-hand.
Angus went on to ask: "Does (Duncan) have a plan, or is this a desire to punish an impoverished little community for making him look bad?"
Both Turmel and Angus have gone to the community recently, while Duncan has left it up to his staff to report back to Ottawa.
"If he was a leader, he would be there," said Angus.
Long-term plan needed
Turmel said earlier on Wednesday that the community needs more money as a short-term solution to the housing crisis as winter arrives, but also said a long-term plan is needed.
Duncan said that's the goal, with immediate housing solutions being provided for those in the most desperate circumstances, and steps underway to create a long-term plan.
Alan Pope, a Timmins-based former provincial MPP and lawyer who wrote a report for the federal government on the troubled community of Kashechewan in 2006, and is familiar with Attawapiskat, said the issues are not new.
"For all the political declarations by band councils and the clerical histrionics by the local member and political maneuvering in Ottawa, this issue is not one of a sudden emergency, it's a longstanding urgent problem," Pope said.
He added that in 2006 the department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada told him there was no housing policy in place for First Nations communities -- and that doesn't appear to have changed.