Editorial: The Attawapiskat First Nations Housing Crisis is Shameful

Two Attawapiskat teenagers seek refuge inside appallingly substandard housing comprised of plywood and plastic sheeting. Teague Schneiter
Two Attawapiskat teenagers seek refuge inside appallingly substandard housing comprised of plywood and plastic sheeting. Teague Schneiter

The recent political scandal focusing on the Attawapiskat First Nation community is shameful. Rather than taking steps to resolve an acute housing crisis and consider a sustainable urban-planning strategy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has chosen to blame the problem on the band council’s inability to manage its own finances. Harper’s political posturing has merely resulted in a federally appointed third-party manager to oversee the financial activities of the reserve–essentially removing the band council’s ability to manage itself independently. Not surprisingly, upon arriving at Attawapiskat, the government-appointed accountant was duly sent away by Chief Theresa Spence, who was later quoted as saying, “It is incredible that the Harper government’s decision is that instead of offering aid and assistance to Canada’s First Peoples, their solution is to blame the victim.” Spence added, “This rationale is mere political deflection as the conditions cited by the department are present in numerous other First Nations communities.”

Located on the western shore of James Bay, the Attawapiskat crisis situation is heart-wrenching and embarrassing to Canadians. As sub-zero winter temperatures take hold in this northern Ontario community, many of its 2,000 residents continue to live in overcrowded shacks constructed of mouldy plywood with no insulation or running water. More than two dozen residents have been forced to move into tents while others continue to live in conditions where plastic-covered window openings are expected to protect them from minus-20-degree temperatures.

Centred around the Attawapiskat scandal is the claim that the federal government has given the reserve $90 million since 2006 with apparently little to show for it. Placing the band council under third-party management is the government’s solution to determine where that supposed figure has been spent; meanwhile, the band council claims that the government has audited and accepted the veracity of their finances over the past several years.

Waking up Canadians to what is occurring within our borders, the crisis has been attracting donations to the Red Cross and to non-profits like Habitat for Humanity’s Aboriginal Housing Program to help the people of Attawapiskat. Since 2007, Habitat for Humanity has been successful in building 35 homes for Aboriginals across Canada–both on and off reserve. Ottawa-based True North Aid is another charity which has been helping Aboriginal communities. One of their teams recently delivered a truckload of warm clothing and supplies to Attawapiskat. Such generosity is appreciated, but it is not sustainable and only extends the short-lived media circus that is producing newsworthy stories during this gift-giving holiday season.

Possible solutions do exist. The Victor Mine, one of the world’s richest diamond mines, is situated 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat–and on Cree land. Mining royalties from here flow directly to the provincial government, not to the Cree First Nation community of Attawapiskat. While De Beers Canada–the owners of the Victor Mine–have donated heated trailers to the Attawapiskat community as a temporary response to the housing crisis, greater partnerships must be established with this and other resource-based industries to build the local economy and improve residents’ health and prosperity. Shouldn’t the government help improve Attawapiskat’s long-term financial state by providing it with revenue-sharing opportunities derived from resource-based royalties? Couldn’t those living in Attawapiskat be given a chance to work as skilled labourers in the mines? These are but two examples that provide the local Cree population with greater incentives to sustain and develop their communities, offering a preferred alternative for Attawapiskat than to continue receiving demeaning financial handouts monitored by bureaucrats and accountants thousands of kilometres away.

From an urban-planning perspective, Attawapiskat barely qualifies as a viable community in its current form. From a humanitarian and cultural perspective, we cannot tolerate such deplorable living conditions in any community in this country. Canada has an obligation to provide adequate health-care facilities, schools, housing for the elderly and other essential infrastructure requirements for all citizens. With no simple resolution, one thing is certain–political posturing and inaction don’t result in better housing in First Nations communities like Attawapiskat.