Does this article sound familiar? The homeless situation was in the news over two years ago. Chief Spence said, "I can't understand how the government has continued to ignore crisis after crisis that has cropped up in our community," Deputy Chief Theresa Spence said recently.
Attawapiskat 'abandoned' by Ottawa
October 08, 2009
Disconcerted members of the isolated Attawapiskat First Nation are nervously eyeing the approaching northern Ontario winter following a summer of living conditions that included a failed sewage system, overcrowding, and toxic contamination.
They say they've been essentially left to fend for themselves in trying to deal with deplorable living conditions and the costs of an evacuation prompted by a sewer backup into eight homes in July.
"It's just so frustrating and heartbreaking and it's also scary," Jackie Hookimaw Witt, co-ordinator for a maternal-childcare program, said from the beleaguered community.
"They feel abandoned."
It's been a particularly difficult stretch for the 1,800-strong Attawapiskat, who live on the fly-in reserve on the western edge of James Bay, 700 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont.
The aboriginals faced off with the president of De Beers Canada, a diamond company that began operating in the community last year, over royalty rights for operations on their traditional lands.
Also, an on-reserve school is contaminated with fuel, posing significant health problems for community members who live nearby.
In July, about 90 members of the reserve were forced to leave the reserve when raw sewage backed up, creating toxic cesspools in their homes. Several dozen have since returned and some are now living in makeshift tent structures that have no running water, toilets or other facilities.
"The people that live there are complaining that it's getting cold," said Hookimaw Witt.
"They're stressed out; they're concerned."
Another 20 people are camped out in a local treatment centre, making regular programming difficult.
Maurice Sutherland's situation is typical of many in the community, where severe overcrowding and lack of money and other resources, coupled with massive infrastructure problems, have cast a gloomy pall.
Sutherland and 13 others had been living in a two-bedroom house in Attawapiskat but electrical and mould problems forced them out. Family members have since rented a house in Timmins, allowing him to leave the motel in Cochrane where he had been staying since July.
"It's rough," said Sutherland, who acts as a community liaison person. "We're Canadian citizens."
Despite a declaration of an emergency by their chief, community leaders and residents blame Indian and Northern Affairs Canada for failing to come to their aid.
To make their point, residents have held several protests, including a blockade of Highway 11 near Cochrane, the main artery through northern Ontario, to little avail.
"INAC is not involved with the whole issue. They should be. There hasn't been any progress," said John Edwards, a band councillor.
"It's just a major hazard."
A request to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to visit the community in August went unheeded.
A spokeswoman for Indian and Northern Affairs said the federal government was providing $700,000 for repairs to the homes affected by the sewer backup and for alternate accommodation.
The work was expected to be complete by the end of October, Susan Bertrand said in an email.
"The First Nation is responsible for managing its housing program on reserve, however, INAC is prepared to assist the Attawapiskat First Nation in developing a short- and long-term housing strategy," Bertrand said.
"The government is actively working with First Nations toward greater effectiveness and accountability in housing management to increase the supply of safe and affordable housing."
Bertrand also said each home on the reserve has, on average, 5.5 people and that the government has spent millions on new housing for the Attawapiskat.
Residents charge that there is a lack of a program to alleviate overcrowding in what are already, in many cases, substandard housing.
The community also lost its school almost 10 years ago when a diesel leak contaminated the building, which was finally torn down a year ago. However, nearby residents complain about the fumes that are also seeping into portables set up to accommodate students.
Edwards, and about 30 others, are currently staying in a motel in Cochrane, waiting to find out if they will be able to return to their community before winter.
There is now talk of moving evacuees to a former army barracks in Moosonee.
De Beers, which has been the target of Attawapiskat anger over the diamond mine near the community, is also said to have paid for about 10 portable housing units that have yet to be transported from southern Ontario.
The question is whether they can be installed before the winter.
"It's very traumatic for the community," Edwards said.
While De Beers' efforts are appreciated, the community complains they are receiving no royalties or other investment from the company's activities on their traditional territory. Funds from Casino Rama in the south are drying up and Ottawa has simply turned its back, they said.
"I can't understand how the government has continued to ignore crisis after crisis that has cropped up in our community," Deputy Chief Theresa Spence said recently.