Never have a people been so rich, and yet so poor. The people of Attawapiskat, on the western shore of James Bay, live in a territory so loaded in diamonds that the famous South African diamond giant De Beers has set up shop in the community.
But, as Amy German reports in this week’s issue, you’d never know it by looking at the First Nation community, which has been completely abandoned by the federal government even as it reaps windfall tax revenues from the mining operation in the Cree territory.
In July, the sewage system backed up, flooding eight homes with raw sewage and forcing the 90 residents of the putrid houses to flee the community. In late September, the band council ran out of funds to continue housing the affected residents in nearby Cochrane. Now, on the cusp of winter, those who have been forced to return live in canvas-roofed cabins without power, water and plumbing.
Not that the remaining housing in the 1,800-person community is in good shape, either. The 14 people who had been living in another two-bedroom house had to move because of toxic mould and electrical problems that made the place a firetrap.
What has Ottawa done to help? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
The people of Attawapiskat feel they have been “abandoned,” Jackie Hookimaw Witt, a childcare manager, said of the Attawapiskat population to Canadian Press recently.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall was blunt in a press release issued last week, asking why the Conservatives “appear to want to keep residents of the Attawapiskat First Nation in sub-humane conditions.”
Health Canada and community health advocates recommended the immediate evacuation of the flooded houses until repairs were completed, Hall noted. But, “the response from officials from Indian and Northern Affairs Thunder Bay office was to charter to the community for a few hours, pronounce the situation resolved, then quickly depart back to Thunder Bay, leaving community members to fend for themselves,” she wrote.
Attawapiskat, of course, is still waiting for Ottawa to do something – anything – about the local school, which was so contaminated with diesel fuel that teachers and students were getting sick. It was torn down last year, but students now attend school in drafty, poorly heated and vermin-infested portables at the same site, where they still inhale diesel fumes. Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl has apparently washed his hands of the matter, saying all money for First Nations school construction has already been allocated.
De Beers, meanwhile, expects to produce about $750 million in diamonds from Attawapiskat territory over the next two years. About 10% of those diamonds will be processed in Sudbury to the south, creating about 50 jobs there. But the benefits for Attawapiskat, where the wealth and economic development is so badly needed, are scant.
The company said it has paid for large portables to be moved to the community to serve as emergency shelters and that it plans to invest $1 million in a training facility in town. Compared to the riches it will take from Attawapiskat, however, the efforts are as minimal as one could imagine.
Indeed, the community has protested that it is receiving no royalties or other investment from the company’s activities on its territory. Last winter, protesters erected a roadblock near De Beers’ Victor Mine to denounce the Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) that Attawapiskat signed with the company.
“We feel that the people of Attawapiskat are not fully benefiting from the De Beers operations in our territory. We are committed to ensuring that our people benefit directly. We are poor and we need to get out of the poverty we are in. DeBeers can help us in improving our community living conditions,” said Greg Shisheesh, a spokesman for the protesters.
It’s a situation so rife with injustice that one is sickened by the blatant disregard for basic human decency. While Attawapiskat and many other remote First Nations communities are figuratively (and, sometimes, literally) burning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper warbles out the old Beatles standard “(I Get High) With A Little Help From My Friends” while tickling the ivories onstage at a posh arts gala.
A tiny fraction of the diamond wealth – all of which should accrue to the land’s true stewards – could make a huge difference in the quality of life of the people who live in the territory. But no. They are forced to live in disgusting, substandard housing, endure a broken water and sewage system, go to school in a toxic, contaminated environment, and be lied to and insulted by a federal government that nonetheless has a fiduciary obligation to provide for a decent community infrastructure.
On top of all that, the Attawapiskat Cree must also watch while the wealth of their land is hoarded for people who already have a disproportionate share of wealth and power.
The old chestnut has it that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but the second half of that phrase is usually forgotten in the glitzy ads that De Beers runs around the world: they are also “man’s worst enemy.”