“How do you know a disaster when you see one?” – John Rafferty MP


John Rafferty MPOTTAWA – Leader’s Ledger – How do you know a disaster when you see one? Well, a pretty good sign is that the Red Cross is at the scene handing out food, blankets, clothing, and providing first aid. This past week the Red Cross was in the Attawapiskat First Nation, which was much appreciated by the residents suffering through an early winter without adequate shelter and running water. The question is; why are people in Canada are living in Third World conditions and relying on the Red Cross for disaster assistance while our federal government is AWOL?

Now, I am not a cynical person, but if I was then I would speculate that the lack of votes in this region and community is probably the main reason there are no representatives of the Conservative government on or near the Attawapiskat First Nations to assess the situation. Since I am not a cynical person though, I am going to say that this is likely not the case. Rather, it seems the federal government is failing First Nations at the public policy level by simply throwing money at individual problems without having a plan to help alleviate poverty and despair in Canada’s most isolated and vulnerable first nation communities.

Before going much further with my personal thoughts on the current situation it may be useful to provide a bit of context and background for those of you who don’t know about Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat is a first nation community located in central northern Ontario where the Attawapiskat River flows into the western side of James Bay. Between 1200 and 2000 people live in very difficult conditions in this remote northern community. Many of the homes and public buildings in Attawapiskat are decades old and decaying, such as the local school which still sits on the site of an old 30,000 litre diesel fuel spill. The deplorable situation at that school was the impetus behind the successful Shannen’s Dream project, which effectively shamed the Harper Conservatives into building a new school by 2013. Attawapiskat is a community in need of not just government assistance, but also plan to end its decade’s long slide into despair.

There is no doubt that the current disaster in Attawapiskat is a result of negligence on the part of the federal government. As of writing this there are 122 families are living in condemned housing and 96 people are living in a large portable trailer. Many of the ‘homes’ are without clean water, basic sanitation, or contained sources of heat. As is the case in many poor communities in Canada, housing investment has not kept up with population growth and many children are now sleeping on floors in Attawapiskat’s condemned homes, or on the ground in tents. To make matters worse, winter came early in Attawapiskat where temperatures have already dipped to (-20) degrees Celsius and there is two feet of snow on the ground. Upon visiting the site last week the Red Cross quickly determined the community met the definition of a ‘disaster area’ by their standards.

This week the humanitarian crisis in Attawapiskat has become such a big story in the national and international media that the Harper Conservatives were finally forced to act. Unfortunately, the first thing that Stephen Harper did was not to offer assistance, but to try to blame others for the problem. Rather than saying help is on they way, Harper tried to blame the leadership in the community by claiming that there shouldn’t be a crisis in the community because it had received $92 million in federal money since 2006.

So why is there a housing crisis after then? In short, families and children are still homeless in Attawapiskat because Stephen Harper simply wrote the community a cheque and tried to walk away from the problem. No one from the federal government bothered to see if the money was enough to build the homes and schools, or meet the water and sanitation needs of the community. While dishing out the blame and placing the community under ‘Third Party Management,’ whatever kind of political double-speak that is, Harper has still offered no concrete assistance in response to this made-in-Canada disaster.

The end result? As of Thursday December 2, 2011 – up to 2000 Canadians continue to live in Third World conditions, the Red Cross is on the ground helping homeless children stay warm, and the Harper Conservative government continues to offer nothing while blaming others for their own mismanagement. I can assure you this never would have happened under a New Democrat government.

For those who are interested and able to help, financial donations may be made online at www.redcross.ca, by calling 1-800-418-1111 or through your local Canadian Red Cross office. Cheques should be made payable to the Canadian Red Cross, earmarked “Attawapiskat” and can also be mailed to the Canadian Red Cross, Ontario Zone, 5700 Cancross Court, Mississauga, ON, L5R 3E9.

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John Rafferty is the current Member of Parliament for Thunder Bay – Rainy River and a member of the New Democratic Party caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario. John was first elected to serve as MP in the 2008 federal election and was subsequently re-elected on May 2, 2011 with 48.1% of the vote.