Great article in the Star by Jim Foulds.http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1108609--after-attawapiskat-what
When Canadians first saw the news about Attawapiskat they knew that no matter who is at fault, nobody in Canada should be using a plastic bucket for a toilet and have to dump it outside on a regular basis. Nobody should be calling a shack with mould on the walls home. And nobody in Ontario should be paying $23.50 for six apples and four small bottles of juice.
With little evidence, Prime Minister Stephen Harper charged that the funds that the federal government had transferred to the reserve over several years had been mismanaged. With no consultation he put the band under third party management.
(Earlier this year several flooded towns along the Assiniboine River called for provincial and federal help. Think how the municipalities would have reacted if, immediately after asking for aid, they had been placed under third party management.)
The Harper message to Attawapiskat was clear. Blame the victims; discredit the messenger; and sow doubt in the minds of Canadians.
No one’s hands are clean on this issue. The federal government has woefully underfunded the housing, educational and health needs of First Nations for years. The First Nations leadership has not been aggressive and honest enough about the conditions on many reserves. The provincial government has not ensured that the economic benefits from development on traditional lands flowed more equitably to First Nations. And the news media have ignored the reality of Third World conditions in Canada for far too long.
The media take an interest in Ontario’s northern reserves only when there is a crisis. Then they flood into the community, become instant experts and retreat to the comfort of their big city newsrooms until the next crisis. That’s been the unfortunate pattern since the early 1970s when the mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon River system resulted in the crisis of Minamata disease at Grassy Narrows.
Catholics have the concept of “sins of omission” — when you fail to do something that you should. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who pass by the man “beaten by robbers and left to die” are guilty of sins of omission. The Good Samaritan, who assists him, is not. Let’s not kid ourselves. Most of us knew of the need on many reserves. But because Attawapiskat is hundreds of kilometres even further into the bush than Thunder Bay or Timmins, we pretended that problems did not exist.
This is not the first time there has been a crisis at Attawapiskat.
• In 1979, 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel (the largest spill in Northern Ontario) leaked under the elementary school. The school was finally closed in 2001 because of ongoing health problems suffered by students and teachers. Ten years later, the federal government pledged (for the third time) to fund a new school. Meantime, the children remain in inadequate portables.
• In May 2008, hundreds of people were evacuated from the community because of flooding caused by ice jams in the Attawapiskat River.
• In July 2009, a massive sewage flood dumped waste into eight buildings that housed 90 people. As a stopgap measure, De Beers (the diamond mine is 60 kilometres away) donated and retrofitted two construction trailers to house 90 people until the damaged homes could be fixed or replaced. Two years later, this “short-term solution” still houses the 90 people — who share six washrooms and four stoves.
• When the present state of emergency was declared on Oct. 28, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan claimed his officials were unaware of Attawapiskat’s housing crisis. My question is, “Where the devil have they been all these years?”
Some may ask, “Why don’t the people of Attawapiskat just move?” That’s like asking: Why don’t the people of Vancouver, Los Angeles and San Francisco move out of the San Andreas/Queen Charlotte Fault zone where earthquakes can occur? Why don’t people in the Caribbean move out of the hurricane zones?
The people of Attawapiskat happen to live on inhospitable land on the fault line between advancing western civilization in pursuit of mineral wealth (mainly diamonds and chromite) and their own hunter/gatherer civilization. Many do not live in Third World conditions. About a third of them do actually get a real living and cultural identity from trapping and harvesting caribou, geese and fish. Another hundred work at the nearby De Beers diamond mine. Many still live on the land, coming into the settlement only at Christmas or other “gathering times.”
They don’t move because it’s their land. It’s home.
The federal government has bought 22 modular homes for the settlement to solve the immediate crisis, and the band has agreed to a full audit. However, after Chief Theresa Spence and Duncan met in Thunder Bay recently, a standoff continues over the imposition of the third party manager. The federal government must find a way to climb down and, in return, the band could agree to the appointment of some kind of “housing czar” to get the much-needed homes there fast and fully functioning.
Meanwhile 100 other Attawapiskats exist. Canadians must insist that federal and provincial governments, aboriginal leaders and the media keep the spotlight firmly on Canada’s dirty little secret. Far too many of our aboriginal people live in Third World conditions. We cannot ignore them; they are our neighbours. Otherwise — like the priest and the Levite in Christ’s parable — we’ll all be guilty of a massive sin of omission.
Jim Foulds is a freelance writer in Thunder Bay. He was the MPP for Port Arthur from 1971 to 1987.