Though 90 residents were evacuated from Attawapiskat after a sewage backup contaminated their homes, the federal government has yet to offer the displaced any comfort.
Because of their failing infrastructure, the Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat had to evacuate 90 residents to nearby Cochrane on July 25 after a sewage backup contaminated a series of homes.
At the time the community appealed to Indian and Northern Affairs for aid. In doing so, the community itself had to pay not only for a charter flight to get the evacuees out but also had to pay for the evacuees’ accommodations and meals.
At the time the community’s Chief Theresa Hall told the Nation that though they have an agreement with the federal and provincial governments stating that the chief and council have the authority to declare a state of emergency, they saw no aid.
INAC instead told the community that they would not be willing to shell out because, according to them, this was a housing issue and not a health and safety issue. Instead they recommended that those affected be re-housed within the community despite the fact that overcrowding in Attawapiskat is already a major issue with 30 people sharing one home at times.
“Those who breathed in fumes from the sewer said that they were getting headaches, vomiting and experiencing cramps and diarrhea. When people are exposed to that they could end up with liver diseases and this is why we wanted a health screening to check the people who have been exposed,” Chief Hall told the Nation at the time.
According to Timmins-James Bay New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus, the situation has only “deteriorated” since.
Approximately 60 residents have returned to Attawapiskat from Cochrane though they are not living in actual homes. Instead they have had to make do living in the community’s healing lodge and many are being housed in tents.
Attawapiskat housing manager Monique Sutherland told the Nation that four or five large families are currently camped out in tents and that many of these families have young children and people with health complications.
“One woman fell down and she had to be medivaced out. She is a middle-aged woman and she was in a coma for three days ago,” said Sutherland.
For the returnees staying in the community’s healing lodge, a facility that was never intended for fulltime residents, new problems have developed. Though the community did their best to prepare the lodge, there have been numerous plumbing and electrical problems since the families moved in. There is also no phone service in the building so the families can only communicate with the rest of the community via walkie-talkie in the event of an emergency.
For those still stranded in Cochrane, their two-and-a-half month stay has cost the already cash-strapped band council a great deal and the children staying there have been unable to attend school as the band can’t afford to pay for it.
“They are not being treated as evacuees; they had to leave so they flew them out on an expensive charter and are now staying in hotels. So we have 30 evacuees who are essentially stuck in limbo, not able to get on with their lives,” said Angus.
Since July, INAC has only given funding for the clean-up of the basements where the sewage leaked in, but will not offer any other funding to clean up any other part of the homes. Sutherland said that the homes should be completely gutted due to the contamination from the sewage.
Taking into account all of the problems that the community has been experiencing with the hundreds of thousands of dollars the already poor community has spent on the evacuation, Angus said he can’t understand what is going on in the mind of INAC head Chuck Strahl. He said this in light of the community’s last few crises, such as their attempted evacuation last spring after INAC had a diesel-contaminated school torn down with no clean-up plan, leaving many ill and the fact that the community has only worn-out, makeshift trailers to house their elementary school.
“If you watch the questions I have asked recently, I am asking Strahl to help these people and it really, really bugged him. I don’t understand why, because we are talking about people in misery. In the spring, it was the same situation. Kids were sick and we had teachers who were documenting this and he seemed to respond with rage,” said Angus.
Angus said that he will be heading to Attawapiskat on October 15 when the community will be meeting with INAC in an attempt to come to an agreement to help the community. So far Sutherland said that community members are currently feeling discouraged.