Though the Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat has been in crisis over education, housing and health for many years, since its recent time in the media spotlight over a dire housing crisis, the Canadian government has chosen to blame the community over simply handing out aid.
According to Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus, the federal government is playing the victim, saying that they simply weren’t informed that Attawapiskat was in crisis, despite video footage showing Angus questioning Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan over Attawapiskat as early as November 4.
In late October, Angus travelled to the fly-in-only community in his riding to video the brutal conditions that the community of roughly 2000 Crees has been living in. The video showed extensive footage of how almost 100 individuals are living in a state of homelessness, with some in un-insulated shacks or tents without any plumbing, pouring human waste out of windows and others living on top of each other in a temporary shelter comprised of trailers where 90 people were sharing four showers.
At that, many of the existing homes in Attawapiskat are ravaged by mould, severely overcrowded, insufficiently heated and nearing dilapidation due to the wear-and-tear that the pressure of overcrowding has put on these buildings.
The Crees within them too are seen suffering, children covered with rashes and the community’s only doctor describing how the rate of viral infections and respiratory illness is exponentially higher in Attawapiskat because of the living conditions.
Yet despite this video being posted on October 28 and Angus having questioned Duncan about the crisis in the House of Commons, the minister told CBC TV on December 1 that he was never made aware of the situation and he went as far as blaming Angus for simply not telling him about it.
“What they have been saying is that nobody gave them a proper declaration of emergency,” said Angus.
However, it was not just Attawapiskat but also neighbouring Kashechewan and Fort Albany that simultaneously declared states of emergency on October 28 due to a severe lack of housing that has forced many families out into the cold on all three reserves.
“As of November 4, Indian Affairs and Ontario were fully aware of the state of emergency and just to make it clear, because nobody had moved within that week, the community issued another state of emergency on November 12 and this is the one that I had a copy of but every other bureaucrat seems to think that this disappeared,” said Angus.
What Angus said he found even more unbelievable was how the government is always pointing the finger at First Nations when it comes to financial accountability and yet it can’t manage to keep track of which communities are in states of emergency.
The day after giving this interview to the Nation on November 28, Angus headed to Attawapiskat with interim NDP party leader Nycole Turmel, various other media representatives and the Red Cross, who had decided to step in and help the people of Attawapiskat.
Angus said it was the first time he had ever heard of the Red Cross doing humanitarian aid in Canada.
“Obviously the Red Cross felt that this was a legitimate state of emergency and obviously Canadians are feeling the same, because we are hearing from people across the country and in fact, across North America, all asking what the hell is happening here?
“Ironically, I have two people who are aid workers in Haiti asking how could this be happening in Canada? In fact, they were asking if they should be coming home,” said Angus.
To date however, the federal government has only pledged a mere $500,000 targeted at “remediating” some existing abandoned structures though Angus said that if a structure has been deemed no longer usable in a place like Attawapiskat then it is certainly beyond repair.
It was after a day of intense media scrutiny on the ground in Attawapiskat that the federal government made the announcement that they would be putting the community into third-party management under the guises that it was the community that had in fact mismanaged their own money and therefore their own fault they were in this situation.
Upon getting the news that she was no longer in charge of her own community after asking for help with the housing crisis, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence told the media that being placed under third-party management was “a slap in the face”.
Spence told APTN News, “This was a very poor reaction by the government. We are in crisis, so why are they putting us under third-party management? Is it because we are making noise for help?”
As a result, Angus has stated publicly that he is getting calls from Attawapiskat residents that their welfare cheques are being cut off because the community is now in receivership.
Meanwhile on December 1, Duncan just happened to bump into Angus as cameras followed the minister out of the studios at the CBC following an interview.
“We have had people in the community monthly or more often since April,” Duncan told the CBC, and yet at the same time he said his department wasn’t aware of the situation until “a few days after October 28” as neither his officials nor Charlie Angus identified the problem, he claimed.
As Duncan exited the studio area, Angus, who was coming up the same stairwell greeted him and sarcastically reminded him once again that there was a crisis in Attawapiskat, aware of the fact that the minister has been trying to shift the blame to him and the community.
“We are not dealing with casual incompetence here, this is a willful, hard-working level of incompetence where we have people who are slowly dying in sheds. This was happening under his watch and he never, ever thought it was an issue,” Angus told the CBC.
In terms of placing Attawapiskat under third-party management, Duncan has maintained that it is necessary because of the $90 million that his department has paid out to the community as he has claimed that the community has potentially misspent the funds.
Turmel however disagrees with Duncan about the funding and claims that they are making it seem like a lot more than it actually is.
“They said they sent Attawapiskat $90 million which is true, but that was since 2006. When you add up the figures, it actually isn’t really even enough money and we know this….
“The average social fund that is transferred to a province is about $18,000 per person per year and then out there it is about $6000 per person per year and so how can a municipality have the kind of budget necessary to accomplish anything in their community,” said Turmel.
At that, Spence has already said on countless occasions that the $90 million in question has gone to a wide variety of basic necessities, such as healthcare, education and social programs, and that every cent has been accounted for under the reserve’s co-management system that INAC put in place 12 years ago.
Turmel added that the government has already gone through all of Attawapiskat’s books and reported back to the department on the community’s spending but this is just a detail that they perpetually fail to mention to the media.
“The government is so concentrated on other issues that they don’t take care about the department they are responsible for and this is the main problem that we have with the Conservative government. Canadians need to ask questions and make the government more accountable for the job that they are not doing. That is what we need to do all day, every day,” said Turmel.
Back in Attawapiskat, less than 24 hours after the arrival of a third-party manager assigned by the federal government, it was announced on December 6 that Chief Spence had already sent the manager packing.
Saying that the community needs to be focused on the housing crisis and not other things, Spence told CBC News that she had informed her band manager to tell the third-party manager to leave because this is not going to work for Attawapiskat.
The manager has since left the community.
On December 6, Spence headed to Ottawa to meet with the Department of Indian Affairs. She also spoke at a meeting hosted by the Assembly of First Nations where Chiefs from across Canada had gathered.
In light of her community’s plight, Spence told the Chiefs, “It’s time to get really aggressive with the government.”
She went on to reiterate that she felt her community was being punished for speaking out but that it was time to move on and work with Ottawa without any blame.
At press time on December 7, the government had released a statement saying that they had provided funding to renovate five houses in Attawapiskat and are currently working with Emergency Measures Ontario on the ground in the community.
As for the short term, it was their recommendation that the community transform public buildings (i.e. the arena and the wellness centre) into temporary shelter.
They also urged Attawapiskat once more to work with the third-party manager.
It is not clear if the money to renovate the five homes in question is new funding on top of the aforementioned $500,000 or additional to that.
Spence, on the other hand, marched through the streets of Ottawa to Parliament Hill to deliver her own message for the government, that this was only the beginning. She and the Chiefs were later forcibly removed by the RCMP after being told that they could not stand in the shelter of one of the Parliament buildings and had to relocate further away from the doors.