Attawapiskat residents arrive in Kapuskasing after fire forces evacuation
Published Saturday, November 23, 2013 11:37AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 23, 2013 8:33PM EST
Dozens of residents from the Attawapiskat First Nation have been flown to the town of Kapuskasing, after a fire tore through a trailer compound on the northern Ontario reserve, forcing an evacuation.
About 70 residents of the First Nation community arrived in Kapuskasing, located about 400 kilometres south, Saturday afternoon, one day after Attawapiskat officials declared a state of emergency.
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt said in a statement released Saturday afternoon that the ministry is in continuous contact with Attawapiskat officials to ensure the evacuees have a place to stay.
"It is too early to tell how long residents could be away from their homes however, my officials will work in partnership with the Town of Kapuskasing to ensure that community members return home safe in their community with their loved ones," he said.
He added that the government is committed to finding sustainable housing solutions for the community, and is currently working with the band council on planning and securing land and serviced lots.
He pointed out that the ministry is also working with the Attawapiskat First Nation to help with the construction of four semi-detached homes, which are slated to be completed in fall 2014.
Kapuskasing Mayor Alan Spacek told CTV News that volunteers from the Red Cross had been preparing throughout the day for the evacuees.
After being registered and assessed for any special needs they may have, the evacuees will be transported to a hotel where they will stay, he said.
Spacek noted that Kapuskasing has provided temporary shelter and services in emergency situations many times in the past, and the town’s residents are willing to help.
"Certainly in times of need, when our neighbours need help, we're there to help them," Spacek said.
Candle suspected cause of fire: Attwapiskat officials
In a statement issued Saturday afternoon, Attawapiskat officials said the source of the fire, which started Friday night, was a candle that was being used to illuminate part of the trailer compound.
The trailers were donated to Attawapiskat by De Beers Canada in 2007 to provide temporary emergency shelter, the statement said.
Earlier in the week, the community was hit by a severe winter storm that caused a blackout. Power was eventually restored on Wednesday, with the exception of the trailers, the statement said.
While alternate shelter was opened up in the reserve's community hall, some residents of the trailers decided to stay in the complex.
After the fire, given the severe housing shortage, Attwapiskat officials decided to reach out to Emergency Management Ontario and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs to have the affected residents accommodated.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence thanked Kapuskasing residents for their support.
"I would like thank Mayor Spacek and the citizens of Kapuskasing for assisting in this current emergency, and on behalf of my council and community, thank you," she said in the statement.
'One problem after another'
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the James Bay community, says the remote northern Ontario community has been hit with a series of unfortunate events during the last month.
He said that in the process of trying to restore power, a sewer pipe broke, affecting a water treatment plant.
Angus said earlier this month a separate water pipe breakage caused the community's school to flood.
"In the last month we've been hit with one problem after another," he told CTV News Channel, adding that "substandard" infrastructure in the area is to blame.
Attawapiskat has become a flashpoint for relations between the federal government and First Nations after a 2011 housing crisis triggered a state of emergency.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the band of mismanaging about $90 million in federal funds it had received since 2005.
Spence staged a six-week hunger protest in December 2012 over living conditions on reserves and treaty issues – sparking nationwide demonstrations.
Steps toward change
Angus said Attawapiskat has recently taken some positive steps forward and community leaders are eager to put smart planning solutions in place.
However, infrastructure remains a roadblock, he said, with a number of James Bay communities experiencing sewer and water problems.
Angus added that the two communities he represents don't have schools.
"This is a really sad story because we've really seen some momentum in the community," he said.