OTTAWA – The issue of Attawapiskat, and the third world like conditions many of the residents face every day has been the subject of massive media coverage, as well as discussion in the House of Commons and now the Canadian Senate. Yesterday in the House of Commons the Prime Minister stood to say “When this government spends $50,000 for each person in the community for a total of over $90 million, it is not wasting money. We expect to achieve results and we will work with communities to ensure that we do”.
The issues facing Northern communities are many. That there is action, discussion and engagement is perhaps opening the door for positive change.
In the Senate there were two exchanges on Tuesday:
Hon. Sandra Lovelace Nicholas: Honourable senators, my question is directed to the Leader of the Government in the Senate. On October 28, the First Nations community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency because of its deplorable conditions. With winter approaching and temperatures dropping, some families have been living in tents and sheds without heat, electricity, running water or adequate sanitation.
The government finally heard the community’s cry for emergency help last week, with an announcement that the Red Cross would be sending a team to provide immediate humanitarian assistance.
Will the Harper regime ensure that all the families in this community are provided with the warm, safe shelter they deserve this winter?
Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, obviously our government is deeply concerned about the situation in Attawapiskat. People there are living in dire conditions.
Minister Duncan spoke with his officials on Monday when they were in the community. As a top priority, they are focused on ensuring that community members have warm, dry, safe shelters, especially now as we are approaching winter. Since coming to office, our government has invested over $92 million in Attawapiskat. We are working with the community at the moment to investigate why this First Nations community is facing so many challenges, given the significant amount of money that was sent their way for housing, infrastructure, education and administration.
This is a dire situation, but clearly something is seriously wrong when you factor in the amount of money that has been spent since we have come to office. Something is not working here. Obviously, providing vast amounts of money has not helped resolve the situation.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Honourable senators, let us remember that First Nations people did not ask to be put on reserves. This situation will return again and again unless deep-rooted problems in the community are treated in more meaningful ways, such as poverty and chronic underfunding of infrastructure, health care and education. What is the government’s long-term plan to improve conditions in this community?
Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, this is a serious situation. We faced this situation in another community a few years ago. An inquiry was conducted by a former minister of the Ontario government, who made the recommendation that this other community be relocated. Certainly that was the optimum situation that would have improved the lives of the people in that particular situation.
In that case, the people who lived on the reserve opted to stay on the lands that they were on. This is not an easy situation to deal with.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the facts in this case are that the government has invested over $92 million since we came to office. These funds — working with the leadership — hopefully would have contributed significantly to housing, infrastructure, education and administration. This is a small, remote community, but when you look at this large sum of money, that works out to $52,000 for each man, woman and child who lives on this reserve.
Clearly, the people who are living there have to be provided with warm shelter, especially with the approaching winter. However, equally clearly, the minister and departmental officials will have to work with the leadership of this reserve as well. Providing money does not necessarily solve the problem.
Hopefully the departmental officials who are in the area and working on the ground at the moment will come to some long-term resolution. Spending this kind of money for what was supposed to be proper housing, infrastructure, education and administration of the reserve has not worked. They will have to go back to the drawing board.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Honourable senators, I agree there is much work to do. However, I believe in my heart that if it was any other community or race the help would have been there within minutes.
Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I challenge that. I think when you look at the commitment the government has made to our First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in a host of areas — whether education, training or water quality — I reject absolutely that the conditions these unfortunate individuals find themselves in have anything to do with the attitude of the government. On the contrary, the government has expended considerable resources to improve the living conditions in this community, to no avail.
Here is the second exchange:
Hon. Marie-P. Poulin: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Senator Lovelace Nicholas asked a very important question. She emphasized the urgency of the situation. I listened attentively to the leader’s response in which she spoke about long-term solutions.
Can we come back to the senator’s original question? This is an urgent situation. The head of the Sudbury nurses association called upon the federal government to take immediate action. In the past, there have been examples of times when the government reacted immediately to urgent situations even at the international level.
Senator Lovelace Nicholas asked what the government intends to do right now to resolve this situation, which is a health crisis, a human crisis, a social crisis and an economic crisis.
Hon. Marjorie LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I can only surmise that the senator was not paying much attention to my first answer, because I offered at the end of my remarks that obviously the significant sums of money that have been expended in this community have not resolved the problem, which of course would indicate that officials and the leadership in the community will have to go back and assess why this is the case.
I absolutely did not say that we were doing nothing and that only long-term solutions were available. I did say, and I repeat, that there are officials from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada on the ground as we speak dealing with the community and they are focused — and I remember using the words “as a top priority” — on ensuring that the community members are provided as a top priority right now warm, dry and safe shelter, especially as we are entering into the harsh winter months.
Senator Poulin: Honourable senators, can the leader provide us with written assurance from the federal officials responsible for this matter that immediate solutions will be found to remedy this crisis, as she said?
Senator LeBreton: I take that as a great vote of non-confidence in our hard-working officials in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs that the senator would not accept my word that they are up there dealing with the situation as we speak to ensure that this community has dry, warm and proper shelter for the winter. In response to the request for written assurances, I have given the honourable senator my assurances.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Mr. Duncan, has given assurances publicly and he is probably being asked about this in the other place as well, but if it would help, at the end of the day, once they have completed their work there and have provided shelter for these individuals — once they have better things to do, since they are working on the ground, rather than producing written reports — I will ask them at the end of their work if they would provide a follow-up in writing.
Senator Poulin: Honourable senators, I do not know how my question was translated, but I am not making this inquiry personal. I am talking about an issue that is beyond that, not only geographically, but also, I think, humanly.
I am referring to the fact that, as parliamentarians, we are responsible for the regions we represent and for the minorities we represent. Senator Lovelace Nicholas raised such an important issue. I am trying to ensure that we are fulfilling our responsibility as representatives of regions and of minorities, and that the required service for an urgent situation is being provided. I am sure that the leader can furnish us that response, even in written form, because we know that she shares the same table as the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.
Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, all individuals, no matter their political stripe, are horrified at the situation that they see unfolding in Attawapiskat. I started by saying, honourable senators, that we are deeply concerned about the situation and that Minister Duncan has officials from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs on the ground as we speak working with the community. Their number one job at this moment is what they are totally focused on. We will have to deal with the other issues that I was alluding to earlier. They are focused completely as a top priority in ensuring that the community members have safe, warm, dry living conditions. No one disagrees with that. This is what we all want to see and this is what they are working very hard to achieve.
At the end of the day, once they have come back and established that the people there are living in safe conditions, I will be very happy to ask them to do a follow-up written report as to what they found, how they dealt with the issue, how they resolved the situation and what the situation is once their work is complete.