Having declared a state of emergency with a desire to evacuate on March 28, the community of Attawapiskat is still living amid contamination from diesel fumes and Indian Affairs is thwarting their every attempt to leave.
In mid-March, Indian and Northern Affairs decided to go ahead and tear down the old J.R. Nakogee Elementary School that was closed in 2000 after the diesel spill the school was built over turned toxic.
The school had been acting as a cap for the spill and when the building was dismantled, the community became rank with diesel fumes and the nearby vicinity covered with the dust from the contaminated site.
Without sufficient barriers around the demolition site, many residents complained that the dust spread rapidly and the fumes were overpowering, especially for the children in the portable classrooms just meters away from the site.
Fearing for the health and safety of their children, the community closed down both the makeshift elementary school and the nearby high school and declared a state of emergency.
On behalf of INAC, Health Canada sent inspectors to the site but according to them and INAC Minister Chuck Strahl, “There are no indications that there’s a health problem.”
The community however disagrees and has tried to go through different levels of government in an attempt to get out.
Stan Louttit, the Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, said that in order for a First Nations community’s declaration to go in effect and for an evacuation to happen, both INAC and the province, through Emergency Measures Ontario, have to be in agreement. This goes back to a 1992 working agreement in Ontario between the province, the EMO and INAC.
“Without much hesitation, INAC responded by saying we don’t feel there is a problem and we are not supporting an evacuation,” said Louttit, who was involved in numerous conference calls between the community and INAC.
Though Louttit said that the community tried to deal directly with the EMO, they would not budge without INAC’s blessing as in the end the ministry would be footing the bill.
Both Louttit and the community, having no other options, have moved on from trying to evacuate and are now just trying to get INAC to contain the site to prevent any further health complications for the residents.
“Spring is around the corner, the snow is going to melt, it’s going to rain, the river might break up and flood which would make things ten times worse. Time is of the essence and we need to get things moving,” said Louttit.
Meanwhile, Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the Timmins-James Bay riding, who has been rallying for the health and safety of the community since the get-go, traveled to Attawapiskat to document the damage with video interviews. He was accompanied by a health-and-safety expert from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association who was appalled by the situation.
The video, recently released on YouTube, shows parents, children and teachers from the school discussing their health symptoms since the demolition.
One nameless woman in the video said that both of her children had severe rashes all over their bodies.
“My daughter, under her armpits, had a rash under both of them and they started to smell like rotten meat because her skin was all torn apart because she was scratching it too much,” she said.
Other residents complained of their children having rashes, nosebleeds, headaches and diarrhea and that even babies in the vicinity were now experiencing the symptoms.
Despite these health complaints, Angus said that he was not surprised that Health Canada gave the site the okay as that is what they have done in the past, similarly to the Kashechewan E coli crisis.
“I believe the fundamental responsibility of INAC and Health Canada is to keep the costs down,” said Angus.
According to Angus, for those under the Indian Act, once a Health Canada inspection has taken place the results and recommendations are then sent to INAC, which, he claims, simply does not want to spend the money on rectifying the situation.
“There seems to be no mechanism to force Indian Affairs to act. Indian Affairs is a law all unto themselves and the people under the Indian Act have no recourse for civic protection that any citizen in the district or province would have. So we continue,” said Angus.
According to Louttit, at press time no decision had been reached in terms of cleaning up the site or taking any further measures for the residents of Attawapiskat. He said that the community’s 600-700 students would be returning to school on April 23 so that they do not lose their academic year.
To view Angus’ recent video made about Attawapiskat with interviews with the residents and school employees, go to: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsOy1Ex3u_E