Attawapiskat: a hard look at the federal government’s response so far

1 December 2011

KAIROS Urgent Action
Background information

Attawapiskat LogoAs of November 30, federal leaders and the Red Cross have now visited the northern Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat, which is a step forward. The Red Cross is flying in emergency supplies like winter sleeping bags.

However, no emergency or long term funding for housing has been committed by either the provincial or federal government despite the onset of winter, and the latest word from the federal government is very troubling.

The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs’ November 30 announcement that he is putting the community’s finances under the control of a government appointed third-party manager deflects attention from the real issue: chronic under-funding. And it implies that the community has not properly managed its finances, which again takes attention away from the real issue.

KAIROS is very concerned that the federal government is failing to deal urgently and directly with a housing crisis that has people living through the winter in tents and sheds.  Instead there are requests for proposals and comments that appear to blame the First Nation for the crisis.

On November 29 Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the government had spent $90 million on Attawapiskat since he came to office in 2006. “That’s over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community,” he said during question period. “Obviously we’re not very happy that the results do not seem to have been achieved for that.”

KAIROS notes that this amounts to $10,000 per resident per year, in a community that is not road-accessible for over half the year, and where a single home costs around $250,000 to build. The Indian Act provides the federal government with the “exclusive authority to legislate in relation to ‘Indians and Lands Reserved for Indians.” Among other things, this means the federal government is responsible for funding all of the services that most Canadians would receive from the province and the municipality: health, roads, education, housing, and more. The rate of $10,000 per resident per year partly explains why the community is living in such poverty.

Let’s put that $10,000 per capita in a bigger context.  According to Statistics Canada, in 2009 “the three levels of government, plus the Canada and Quebec pension plans, spent a total of $631.3 billion providing services.” This means that the provincial, territorial and local governments “spent $12,517 for every man, woman and child in the country in 2009.” StatsCan acknowledges that these averages vary widely among the provinces and territories. For example, the costs of providing services in the North are higher – $44,476 per capita in Nunavut, for example – compared to $11,372 in Ontario and $14,032 in Saskatchewan.

More details on the long term infrastructure needs of reserves and why the government is failing so badly at addressing them are found in Chapter 4 of the June 2011 Auditor General’s report, complete with very specific suggestions for ways forward. The report says, “In our view, many of the problems facing First Nations go deeper than the existing programs’ lack of efficiency and effectiveness. We believe that structural impediments severely limit the delivery of public services to First Nations communities and hinder improvements in living conditions on reserves. We have identified four such impediments: lack of clarity about service levels; lack of a legislative base; lack of an appropriate funding mechanism; and lack of organizations to support local service delivery.”

Another explanation for such long-term poverty lies in the fact that the community’s land rights are not being respected, which is in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by Canada last year. The community has no access to the vast majority of its traditional territory and is unable to enjoy the benefits of, among other things, resource extraction revenues. Like most First Nations communities in Canada, Attawapiskat lacks a land base because the land has been taken by the provincial and federal governments and leased out for resource extraction, including mining and logging. The vast majority of the millions of dollars in royalties from the De Beers diamond mine, located on the Attawapiskat First Nations’ traditional territory only 90 kilometres from the community, go straight to the Ontario government. $10 million in royalties are sitting in a trust fund for Attawapiskat. The First Nation will be left with the ecological consequences of the mine once it closes.

Comments by Prime Minister Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, that imply that the crisis in the First Nations community of Attawapiskat is due to mismanagement of federal funding, are misleading and harmful.

Prime Minister Harper could have acknowledged that for the last five years his government has been knowingly underfunding the community of Attawapiskat. Rather than feed a stereotype that First Nations are incapable of self-government and sound fiscal management, Prime Minister Harper could endeavour to address the funding shortfalls and obstacles that have contributed to the state of emergency in the community. Canada must come to the table in good faith to deal with centuries of denial of land rights, inherent rights, and the right to self-determination. Indigenous communities have been calling for and waiting for this for far too long.

KAIROS has dedicated its 2011-12 education campaign to questions of equity exactly because of situations facing communities like Attawapiskat. It’s tempting for Canadians to accept convenient stereotypes about Aboriginal peoples; KAIROS calls on all people of faith and all Canadians to take the time to understand the land and funding crises facing Aboriginal communities, and to undo decades of colonial or racist assumptions.

We urge you, your faith community or your community group to take advantage of this sudden spotlight on conditions that have existed for far too many years. We urge you to hold Canada to its year-old endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; the Declaration offers a positive vision of what could be, and Canada needs to step through that open door and begin working with Indigenous communities in good faith, peace and friendship. Equity in funding and access to land would be two huge steps through that door.

One small step is to participate in the ongoing urgent action. Please click here for an updated version of the action. If you want to learn more about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, KAIROS offers the interactive Blanket Exercise to get you started. Contact us at if you want to know more.



Filed in: Indigenous Rights, UNDRIP Blog Updates

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