Top chief says Attawapiskat crisis could be 'reckoning'
Published Tuesday, November 29, 2011 8:57PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 6:43AM EDT
Canada's national Aboriginal chief says the uproar over the squalor in northern Ontario's Attawapiskat community may be a "moment of reckoning" that finally shakes up the way Ottawa deals with First Nations.
As Canadian Red Cross workers arrived in the remote village Tuesday to deliver help, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo said the situation is the result of systemic problems between Ottawa and Aboriginal communities.
"We gravitate, as Canadians often do, when people are in need," Atleo said, stressing the need for immediate action as the community prepares for a long winter.
"And then lets … start working on the long-term solutions that are required, so that we're not back here talking about this again in a year, two or five years."
Leadership in the First Nations community declared a state of emergency last month to draw attention to the living conditions there, with the public cry for help coming out of frustration with a lack of action from Aboriginal Affairs.
While Atleo thanked the people of Attawapiskat for having the courage to open their homes to the eyes of the country, he wondered if the media attention garnered over the past few days represented a watershed.
"Perhaps this is a moment of reckoning," he said, noting that at least 100 communities scattered across the country are grappling with similar conditions.
In particular, Atleo said leaders "have to smash the status quo" and redraw the relationship, so there is an equal partnership between the federal government and First Nations.
"We are all subject to the paternalistic past of an Indian Act that does not work for anyone," he said.
The state of emergency prompted action from the federal and provincial governments, which have both sent officials to the community.
Faced with a high number of dilapidated and rundown houses, and a lack of funds to repair them, a number of families have been forced to move into tents, uninsulated shacks and trailers left behind by mining crews.
Interim NDP Leader Nicole Turmel travelled to the community and said that she saw "real poverty."
"Seeing what I saw today, is people living in sheds, trailers, no heat, no water, no blankets," Turmel said from Attawapiskat.
Turmel invited Prime Minister Stephen Harper to visit the community and witness the deplorable conditions first-hand.
"We know the Red Cross is coming in, but at the same time, we need houses, we need apartments, we need sewage (systems)," Turmel added.
On Tuesday, the relief workers were delivering essential items to the community, such as generators, heaters, insulated sleeping pads, blankets and winter clothing, said John Saunders from the Red Cross.
He said the agency has been working with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence to determine the immediate needs in the community and to set up a donation system.
Some progress has occurred since the band first declared a state of emergency in the community near James Bay.
Regional Grand Chief Stan Louttit says five families living in tents on the Northern Ontario reserve should be able to move into homes as soon as before Christmas.
New federal funding has allowed the band to begin repairs on several abandoned houses, and Ottawa has pledged up to $2 million if the band comes up with a detailed, feasible plan to build more homes.
However, Louttit said such measures are little more than "band-aid" solutions and don't address the larger issues of chronic overcrowding, poor construction and poverty.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, speaking in question period in the House of Commons, said the situation is due to a "complete failure of federal responsibility with respect to the people who are living in Attawapiskat."
Harper responded that the federal government had spent $90 million on the community of Attawapiskat since coming into office.
"That's over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community. Obviously we are not very happy that results do not seem to be achieved with that. We're concerned about that and we have officials looking into it," Harper said.
Rae lashed out angrily at that explanation.
"It would seem the implication of what the prime minister is saying is the people of Attawapiskat are responsible for the problems they are facing," Rae said. "That response is a disgraceful response from the government of Canada. When is the government going to start taking responsibility for the deplorable situation?"
However, a 2010 audit found that there is a lack of oversight on how funds are spent on reserve housing.
"There remain significant gaps to provide assurance that governance, risk-management and control frameworks are adequate to provide a reasonable expectation that funds for on-reserve housing are used for the intended purpose and that outcomes will be achieved," the audit of the Aboriginal Affairs department stated.
Auditors also found that Ottawa wasn't closely tracking their housing projects, and when projects were double-checked, documentation was lax.
The federal government spends about $272 million annually for housing on reserves. In the 2005 budget, $192 million was allotted and in the stimulus program, another $400 million was set aside. Funds flow through Aboriginal Affairs and Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp.
Dr. Heather Ringrose, a physician who travels to the isolated community once a month, said many of her patients suffer from issues such as respiratory infections and skin infections that are compounded by crowded living quarters and run-down houses.
"As the doctor I'm always asked to write notes for patients who want better housing for health reasons and I know when I've asked if my notes make any difference the answer is always that there's a five-year wait for housing in Attawapiskat," she told CTV News Channel via Skype.
"So some people have had to leave the community because they can't wait that long."
Several communities in the James Bay region are experiencing similar trouble, but First Nations leaders have focused on Attawapiskat because conditions there are the worst.
The elementary school in Attawapiskat was shut down in 2000 due to health and safety concerns, and has not yet been repaired or replaced with a permanent facility.
The community has been waging an online campaign encouraging supporters to write letters to the federal government asking for a new school.
Housing shortages are not a new phenomenon in Aboriginal communities. The Assembly of First Nations estimates 80,000 additional homes are needed in communities across Canada.
The group says nearly half of the existing houses in First Nations communities are substandard and in many cases should be condemned.
With files from The Canadian Press