Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin’s recent “fact-finding” visit to Western James Bay left local leaders frustrated because they felt he failed to make any commitments to solve the problems they are facing.

“Most of the people I talked to were a little frustrated at the outcome of the trip/’ said Rosanne Archibald, Chair for the Mushkegowuk Council. “He didn’t do a whole lot in terms of making commitments or promises or any real suggestions, especially in the main area people focused on, the housing situation.”

Archibald made her remarks after she accompanied Irwin on his one-day trip to Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, New Post and Peawanuck. The tour is part of his on-going “fact-finding” mission to talk to Native leaders across the country.

Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull said the minister only spent a couple of hours in his community, which wasn’t enough—that he just rushed around and then took off to the airport. “I felt when he left he didn’t have the answers to solve the problems.”

In Attawapiskat, the minister was shown the conditions of the community, such as the lack of housing, no running water or sewage and lack of proper roads—”things that the federal government should be responsible for,” Chief Gull said. He added that the community doesn’t have the ability to build housing itself.

Chief Gull took the minister to see the problems with housing for himself. “We wanted him to see at least four houses— one of the most crowded homes with no running water, a typical INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs) housing. He only saw one and took off to the airport.”

Virtually no houses in the community have running water or sewage. The Chief presented Irwin with a 1992 housing study done by the Band Council that showed the high levels of overcrowding and the stress and other social problems that result. Chief Gull said action is needed now to solve the crisis.

Andrew Reuben, Chief of Kashechewan, echoed the other west coast leaders’ concerns about the minister’s lack of commitment. “They say, ‘We’ll do as much as we can.’ You don’t get commitment from these guys,” he said. “But I think it was a good idea. I really wanted to have him come. It’s important for the ministers to see the conditions early in their mandate, because people are suffering here.”

In Fort Albany, the minister was greeted by a rally of students from St. Anne’s School who chanted, “We want a new school.” Mushkegowuk Chair Rosanne Archibald commented, “The minister was caught off guard by the incident.” She went on to say that he had no réponse to the students’ demands. For years, Fort Albany has been pushing for a new school. The existing building also houses the Band Office and Education Office. The building is also extremely run down and constantly needs repairs. At one point, the school closed down after asbestos was found in the ceiling and walls.

The minister was also supposed to visit Moose Factory, but Chief Ernest Beck and his Band Council declined to talk with Irwin because they said a one-hour meeting wasn’t enough to deal with all the issues.

Still, Archibald was upbeat about Irwin’s tour. “If anything positive came from the visit, the Mushkegowuk communities and Chiefs have a better connection to the minister’s office. And maybe we could utilize that new relationship to make headway on different issues.”