Attawapiskat’s luck refuses to change. In late November, the late-fall storm that pounded many communities of Eeyou Istchee wiped out power to the beleaguered Mushkegowuk Cree community on the West Coast of James Bay. In the power outage that followed, a candle set off a fire in the complex of connected trailers that house several dozen residents.
For many, Attawapiskat is synonymous with crisis and despair. In 2009 the community was evacuated after it was flooded with sewage. Two years later the community’s severe housing crisis captured national attention that led to the arrival of the International Red Cross.
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins–James Bay, said the trailer complex had long been considered a potential firetrap. “I’m just so glad nobody was killed,” Angus added.
Angus explained that the fire spread though a series of connected construction trailers arranged in a large H pattern. “There’s a single kitchen for all the people, there’s about six toilets, and then these little sort of holding cells,” he said.
The compound was intended as a temporary housing solution, using trailers repurposed from the De Beers diamond mine after the 2009 sewage flood destroyed local homes. About 100 community members were left without shelter.
“The feds refused to do anything,” said Angus angrily. “We had no place to put the homeless. So that temporary solution became permanent, and it was only a matter of time before something happened there, because it’s just not fit for long-term habitation.”
The community declared a state of emergency November 30. The next day between 70 and 80 people left homeless by the fire were flown to nearby Kapuskasing, where they will be housed in hotel rooms.
Angus says the fire demonstrates the need for the federal government to provide new permanent housing, but he worries that won’t happen.
“The trailer wasn’t burned down,” he said. “There’s smoke damage and fire damage. We don’t want people being moved back in there. That’s our worst fear: the government is just going to give them a little bit of money or tell the community to mediate the smoke damage and put a new paint job on, and people will be going back into a place they shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”
Those who have seen Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary The People of the Kattawapiskak River may remember the complex, which is featured prominently as an example of the cramped living conditions locals were left with following the 2009 sewage flood.
Last February, De Beers began renovating the trailers. De Beers’ spokesperson Tom Ormsby described the situation to the CBC by saying, “[The trailers] have fallen into various stages of disrepair. So that’s the initiative right now, because there is still not enough suitable housing for everyone who is displaced.”
Following the 2011 housing crisis, the federal government sent 22 pre-fabricated homes to the community; one was destroyed by fire soon after. Nonetheless, Attawapiskat housing manager Monique Sutherland noted the community still needs 62 new homes as well as renovations to 155 others.
“We have over 80 in the trailers,” said Angus. “People remember we got the emergency trailers to get people out of tents, but we still have a huge amount of people who are living on their mother’s couch, people sleeping in shifts, homes with black mould – there’s a huge backlog in all the James Bay communities for housing.”
Angus is calling on the federal government to work on a long-term housing plan, which he says the community is ready to work together on. “People are willing to rent-to-own. People are willing to rent,” he said. “People want a solution.”
According to Angus, all the government has offered so far is to build four houses, each of which would have to house 20 people in order to clear residents out of the trailers.
“I think they just don’t want to spend the money,” says Angus. “They put band-aids on septic wounds. When there’s a crisis in one community, they pull funding from another. It just goes on and on and on.”
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has been the country’s most visible and vocal opponent of Stephen Harper and his government’s Aboriginal policies. Angus suspects her opposition has led the Conservatives to treat the community as a scapegoat.
“They have really gone out of their way to trash the Chief, to blame [her] for all manner of things that have nothing to do with her. And I think it’s really poisoned the ability of Attawapiskat to move forward. Attawapiskat has been really turned by this government into some kind of monster caricature. Meanwhile, there’s a community of really good people, in a really difficult situation, whose only crime is that they embarrassed the government because they asked the government to come in and help.”
Yet Angus sees a lot of potential in the community, particularly in its young people.
“Attawapiskat has a lot of people wanting to move forward,” he observed. “But you can’t move ahead if the infrastructure’s crumbling around you. So I’m asking the government not to fight with the community, not to do the blame game, just to sit down and say, ‘We all know this is going to be a complex issue, so why don’t we look at some creative solutions?’ That’s what reasonable people would do.”