The one fact that everyone can agree on about Attawapiskat is that the 22 modular homes sent by the federal government have all arrived in the community, and that no one is living in them.

Following the band council’s declaration last October of a state of emergency due to the housing crisis, the first home arrived February 11 over the seasonal ice road from Moosonee, where the 22 homes were sent in December. The rest have since arrived, though they remain in various stages of installation. Some are on lots, with plumbing installed. Others are still in the service lot waiting to be brought to their new location. None have electricity hooked up, and none are occupied.

Depending on who you ask, there are different reasons to explain the housing situation.

Charlie Angus, New Democratic Party MP for Timmins-James Bay (the riding that includes Attawapiskat), said that the lack of hydro is due to the community’s ongoing conflict with Jacques Marion, the third-party manager imposed on Attawapiskat by Ottawa.

“There was a battle about having the third-party manager pay for the hookup to hydro,” Angus said, “so the hydro hasn’t been hooked up yet.”

Attawapiskat Deputy Chief Gerald Mattinas said the difficulty in getting the houses installed has more to do with the pace of work in the North.

“That’s politics. I don’t listen to those guys,” said Mattinas. “I live here. I see what happens every day. It’s not like in the city, where you can get service any time you want to hook your house up. Here, you have to do the digging to get water pipes in and set up your hydro. These houses aren’t pre-sited. You have to search where water use is closer, and stuff like that.”

Mattinas went on to explain that, for the time being, the victims of the housing crisis that rose to national attention between October and December 2011 are housed in two places. Some are in the Healing Lodge, three miles to the west of the community, while others are in trailers that the De Beers mining company donated to the community after using them as a mining camp.

Jan O’Driscoll, press secretary to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) Minister John Duncan, said, “The homes are in the community, and we’re really happy that the community is working toward getting them plugged in. To get that many homes over the ice road, says a lot about what people can accomplish when they’re working together.”

Charlie Angus doesn’t see it so brightly.

“Okay, so they sent 22 trailers for people living in tents,” he said, “but what about everybody else who doesn’t have proper housing? That was a short-term solution. We’re concerned that the government’s walking away on the issue, saying, ‘We’ve fixed your problems, don’t complain anymore.’”

Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit agrees that the housing crisis extends far beyond the 22 modular homes provided by the federal government.

“There’s another crisis waiting to happen,” Louttit said, “and that is the existing trailers that were provided back about seven or eight years ago when the sewage backup happened in the community. De Beers provided some trailers, and there’s 90-plus people living in those trailers. They’ve got small 10×10 rooms, with up to four or five people living in there. Grandparents, grandkids, married people with two kids, a washer and a dryer and a stove. 90-plus people living in those conditions? It’s ridiculous. That in itself is going to be exploding very soon. So there’s a crisis within a crisis.”

Meanwhile, the band council continues to oppose the presence of Marion, who was brought in by the federal government to take over financial control of the band’s affairs. From the beginning, Chief Theresa Spence was unambiguous in her rejection of Marion’s authority over the community she was elected to lead. In early February, modular homes the houses began to arrive, a federal court blocked the band council’s attempt for an injunction against the third-party manager. On April 24, the federal court will hear a judicial appeal to reverse his assignment to Attawapiskat.

“The community opposed a third-party manager,” said Angus. “So what the government did was they cut off the funding to education. Which I find really disturbing: again, it’s the principle that when it comes to anything that happens under Indian Affairs, education and students can be held hostage. They cut off education dollars in this desperately poor community for over two months, and pretty much bled the community dry to force compliance with a third-party manager. It’s the kind of thing that maybe you’d see in the 19th century with a colonial administration, but this is happening in 2012, in Canada.”

Angus argued that the assignment of the third-party manager, who was to bill the community $1,300 per day, was intended to punish the community for making Ottawa look bad.

“This is about punishment. People can’t forget the storyline here,” Angus said. “This is a government that knew of this crisis for over three weeks, were doing nothing on it, and then it blew up as an international embarrassment and the Red Cross had to send emergency aid. The day the Prime Minister went after supposed financial improprieties – that he has not been able to verify at all – was the day the Red Cross landed in Attawapiskat. Harper stood up and said, ‘We gave every man, woman and child in that community $50,000. Where did they spend it?’ But they hadn’t given them $50,000. He was adding up numerous years of spending and it suddenly became okay for Harper to put a price tag on the heads of Indians, which he would never do to any other Canadian citizen.”

Louttit is more measured in his response.

“I don’t know if I would go as far as to say ‘punishing’ the community,” he said. “That’s [Angus’] word. I think what happened was that the minister and the Prime Minister were being overwhelmed by public pressure, being bombarded by opposition in the house, and being attacked in the media – they didn’t look very good. So the way they dealt with that was they took another strategy, which was to blame the community. Instead of standing up and saying, ‘We need to work with the community’, they turned it around and they said, ‘The community has misspent money. They don’t know how to manage their affairs.’ And all of a sudden, before you knew it, the public opinion was against Attawapiskat. So their strategy kind of worked.”

Louttit pointed out, however, that in a sense the government’s tactic helped Attawapiskat by encouraging them to make their finances public.

He said, “They started posting financial statements on their website and telling the government, ‘If you think we misspent, audit us!’ So they did some good things in that regard, I believe, by countering that attack.”

Marion still has his appointed power over the community, and Mattinas is not happy about that.

“I can’t comment on it right now because of the case coming in on April 24,” he said, “but we’d just like to be able to do our own way, the way we do things, and not have someone to withhold the plans for what we want to do with the community.”

Marion, reached in Winnipeg, said, “Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to discuss anything pertaining to our clients.”

All of the conflict aside, what worries Louttit is the future of the buildings in the community.

Referring to the trailers housing 90 members of the town’s inhabitants, he said, “This was supposed to be a temporary fix seven or eight years ago, but like everything else that the government does, when they say temporary, most often it becomes permanent. Like the portables. When the school burned down, they put trailers in and said, ‘This is only for a while. Don’t worry, it’s temporary.’ Then temporary became 20 years. You can’t deal with situations like that. You need to find sustainable solutions, you can’t put up with band-aid fixes.”

One of the most troubling points of the crisis, for Louttit, is that it occurred at a time when Attawapiskat was finalizing a 20-year housing and infrastructure plan, designed to permanently solve housing problems over the next two decades.

“They submitted that 20-year plan to AANDC in the latter part of the crisis, about two months ago,” he said. “And as far as I know, as of this date, AANDC has not even acknowledged or responded to that proposal. If I were AANDC, I would say, ‘Look, there’s certain parts of this proposal we think we can work with you on immediately, there’s some other parts that will take a little bit longer, but the important thing is that we’ll work with you over the period of time it takes.’ But they didn’t even acknowledge it. I hope they’re still willing to work and sit with Attawapiskat in the spirit of cooperation and partnership to try to work toward solutions.”

Mattinas is more concerned with solving the immediate problems.

“By the end of the year,” he said, “hopefully the situation will be different. The victims [of the housing crisis], hopefully we can accommodate most of them, that’s all.”

The Nation contacted the office of AANDC Minister John Duncan for this story. His staff said Duncan would be unavailable for interview, but they would contact us if some other member of the communication team was able to speak with us. Otherwise, they said, they would send an information package explaining the minister’s positions on the issue. As the Nation went to press a week later, they contacted us again to say they were still processing the request.