OTTAWA – Leader’s Ledger – It’s been three weeks since Attawapiskat First Nation took the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency. Since then, not a single federal or provincial official has even bothered to visit the community.
No aid agencies have stepped forward. No disaster management teams have offered help.
Meanwhile temperatures have dropped 20 degrees and will likely drop another 20 or 25 degrees further in the coming weeks. For families living in uninsulated tents, makeshift cabins and sheds, the worsening weather poses serious risk.
Two weeks ago I travelled to this community on the James Bay coast to see why conditions had become so extreme that local leaders felt compelled to declare a state of emergency. It was like stepping into a fourth world.
I spoke with one family of six who had been living in a tiny tent for two years. I visited elderly people living in sheds without water or electricity. I met children whose idea of a toilet was a plastic bucket that was dumped into the ditch in front of their shack.
Dr. John Waddell from the Weeneebayko Health Authority was in the community during this tour. He was emphatic that conditions had deteriorated to the point that an emergency situation was unfolding. Families are facing “immediate risk” of infection, disease and possible fire from their increasingly precarious conditions. Dr. Elizabeth Blackmore repeated this message of immediate risk just this past Friday at a press conference at Queen’s Park.
You’d think that a medical warning from a provincial health authority would move government into action. Think again. When it comes to the misery, suffering and even the death of First Nations people, the federal and provincial governments have developed a staggering capacity for indifference.
Try to imagine this situation happening in anywhere else in this country. We all remember how the army was sent into Toronto when the mayor felt that citizens were being discomforted by a snowstorm. Compare that massive mobilization of resources with the disregard being shown for the families in Attawapiskat.
The indifference speaks volumes about the underlying reasons for this crisis. Such a state of affairs doesn’t just happen. The collapse in Attawapiskat can’t be blamed on bad local leadership, misplaced monies or the possibility that such communities are simply unsustainable. Attawapiskat is a community that has done its best to work with the meagre resources provided by Aboriginal Affairs.
What we are witnessing is the inevitable result of chronic under-funding, poor bureaucratic planning and a discriminatory black hole that has allowed First Nations people to be left behind as the rest of the country moves forward.
Take education for example. Not only are First Nations children systemically denied access to comparable levels of funding and resources available to non-Aboriginal students but, in the case of Attawapiskat, they don’t even have access to a school. It’s been 12 years since the community’s grade school was shut down because children were being exposed to dangerous levels of benzene from the badly contaminated ground. Frustrated grade school children finally took matters into their own hands. They were led by 13-year-old Shannen Koostachin who launched a national campaign to shame the government into action. This fight for equal education has gone all the way to the United Nations. What other Canadian kid has to fight, organize and beg for access to clean and equitable schools?
The province of Ontario has the responsibility to ensure equitable standards for education, as well as water, fire safety and building codes citizens in Ontario. And yet, when the families of Attawapiskat look to the province for help, they are continually told that they are a federal “responsibility.”
Ironically, the province doesn’t take the same attitude when it comes to the immense wealth coming out of Attawapiskat’s back yard. The De Beers Victor Mine is the richest diamond mine in the Western world. Just recently, the province upped the royalty tax at the mine from nine per cent to 11 per cent to ensure an even higher return for the provincial coffers. Not a dime of provincial royalty money comes back to help the community with infrastructure or development.
As for the mine itself, De Beers has signed an IBA (Impact Benefit Agreement) providing for training and job opportunities. Thanks to the provisions of the Indian Act, workers who may want to build their own house in Attawapiskat are unable to do so because they can’t get a mortgage on a reserve. Even if there was a possibility of new housing for the densely overcrowded shantytown, the province hasn’t bothered to turn over any land for new development. No wonder that people with jobs are leaving and heading south — they can’t stay in their home communities.
And then there’s the federal government; over the last number of years, they have consistently turned a blind eye to the growing infrastructure crisis. In fairness to the new Minister John Duncan, he has committed $500,000 as an emergency measure. But given the scope of the problem, this is little more than a Band-Aid.
Presently there are five families living in tents; 19 families living in sheds without running water; 35 families living in houses needing serious repair; 128 families living in houses condemned from black mould and failing infrastructure; 118 families living with relatives (often 20 people in a small home); there are 90 people living in a construction trailer. There’s a need for 268 houses just to deal with the immediate backlog of homelessness.
The $500,000 commitment from the federal government will, at most, help repair three or four abandoned and derelict buildings that would otherwise be torn down.
Fortunately, average Canadians don’t share this level of bureaucratic indifference. Since the state of emergency was declared, my office has been inundated with people wanting to help. I have been contacted by school kids trying to raise money for supplies; trades people who want to come north to help in a rebuilding project; average Canadians who simply ask — what can I do?
As inspiring as this is, it’s clear that nothing will really change until there is action from the officials whose job it is to ensure that these citizens of Ontario and Canada are treated with a basic level of respect and dignity. The cold winter winds are hitting James Bay. People may die if nothing is done. In a country as rich and as just as Canada this is simple unacceptable.
Charlie Angus MP
Charlie Angus is the member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay. Published with permission.