Last December, Canadian news watchers were appalled by the crisis at Attawapiskat, a Cree community on the west coast of James Bay. Living in squalid conditions and lacking appropriate housing, running water, and electricity, the community and its concerns seemed to be dismissed by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan – at least, until Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency, and the International Red Cross came in to help.
This year, it’s not Attawapiskat that’s in the spotlight. Rather, it’s Kashechewan First Nation, a Cree nation roughly 90 km northwest of Attawapiskat, that’s suffering. The problem this time is a combination of factors. You might remember that several years ago, Kashechewan First Nation suffered from flooding and water tainted with E. coli bacteria. The bacteria’s gone, but the flooding remains a problem, and this year the community lost 21 houses to rising waters that destroyed home furnaces.
Meanwhile, as climate change plays havoc with northern communities, Kashechewan discovered more hazards of a shortened winter: the James Bay ice road, which connects the community to other communities like Attawapiskat and Moosonee, did not last long enough to allow for the transportation of all the fuel oil that Kashechewan needed.
In his declaration of emergency, Chief Derek Stephen wrote, “We are without fuel to operate our organizations, heat them, and we are obligated to maintain employee safety and health standards for our employees.” As a result, the community was on the brink of shutting down its band office, schools, power-generation centre, health clinic and fire hall due to their inability to heat the buildings.
The declaration went on to accuse Duncan of ignoring the plight of the citizens of Kashechewan. “During a conference call with [Aboriginal Affairs] we had requested fuel to be flown into the community for our medical facility, administrative buildings and our schools – all of which were denied,” said Chief Stephen.
In response, the office of the minister of Aboriginal Affairs claimed that it had already organized the delivery of extra fuel a full week prior to the declaration of emergency.
Jan O’Driscoll, spokesperson for Minister Duncan, said that 18,900 litres of fuel were delivered to Kashechewan First Nation on November 18 and 19, four days before the state of emergency was declared.
Following the declaration of emergency, O’Driscoll was quoted by the CBC as saying, “Given the urgent nature of the situation, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) has released funds to cover the incremental cost of fuel delivery by air to address health and safety needs of the community and has released a $700,000 emergency cheque towards building supplies for renovations to 21 housing units.”
Ideally, this will help community residents deal with the blow to housing, though a quick look at Attawapiskat may remind readers that though the modular homes that AANDC sent to that community were delivered over the ice road, most of them had not yet been hooked up to infrastructure by April of this year – four months after the crisis began – and none of them were occupied.
Hopefully the fuel delivered to the community will provide the heating that Kashechewan needs to avert a serious emergency. However, the problem of housing remains a significant issue, with no apparent solution in sight.