Attawapiskat First Nation: Background
Dr. Elizabeth Blackmore, one of 15 family doctors for the James Bay coast, said at a recent press conference on Attawapiskat, “I often have to remind myself that I am still working in the province of Ontario… From a medical perspective, we see this as an emergency and that something has to be done.” She said the overcrowding and lack of hygiene present in the community lead to increased infectious diseases, scabies, lice, respiratory problems and acute depression. Substance abuse and suicide often follow.
The Member of Parliament for the area, Charlie Angus, writes: “Two weeks ago I travelled to this community on the James Bay coast to see why conditions had become so extreme that local leaders felt compelled to declare a state of emergency…
I spoke with one family of six who had been living in a tiny tent for two years. I visited elderly people living in sheds without water or electricity. I met children whose idea of a toilet was a plastic bucket that was dumped into the ditch in front of their shack.
Presently there are five families living in tents; 19 families living in sheds without running water; 35 families living in houses needing serious repair; 128 families living in houses condemned from black mould and failing infrastructure; 118 families living with relatives (often 20 people in a small home); there are 90 people living in a construction trailer. There’s a need for 268 houses just to deal with the immediate backlog of homelessness.
Try to imagine this situation happening in anywhere else in this country.”
MPP Gilles Bisson (Timmins-James Bay) also travelled to the community and said some homes are heated exclusively by halved 45-gallon drums used as wood stoves. This greatly increases fire hazard and the incidence of accidental burns. “The federal government knows most people will never visit Attawapiskat, no one will ever see it. I don’t think most people know how bad it is but if the average citizen sees it, they’ll become an advocate in two minutes”, Mr. Bisson said.
Attawapiskat has been in the news before. Like other communities in the area, its drinking water is not clean. Sewage infrastructure is so poor that parts of the community have been evacuated before due to leaks into buildings and the water supply. It’s been 12 years since the community’s grade school was shut down because children were being exposed to dangerous levels of benzene from the badly contaminated ground. Frustrated students finally took matters into their own hands. They were led by 13-year-old Shannen Koostachin, who launched a national campaign to shame the government into action. She was killed in a road accident at age 15 while living outside of her community to attend school. Now other students and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society carry on a campaign in her name – Shannen’s Dream. But still the school has not been rebuilt.
90 kilometres from Attawapiskat is the De Beers Victor mine, located on Cree traditional territory. Recently the province raised the royalty tax at the mine from nine per cent to 11 per cent to ensure an even higher return for the provincial coffers. No provincial royalty money comes back to help the community with infrastructure or development.
Under the Indian Act, First Nations receive funding for housing from the federal government, as part of the Treaty agreement. People living on reserve can own the building, but not the land underneath it, since it is owned collectively by the First Nation.
When it comes to basic needs that are usually a provincial responsibility, like housing, health and education, Aboriginal communities must instead work with the federal government. Disputes about funding between provincial or territorial and federal governments can mean that resources many Canadians take for granted are held up for years. In their November 23 open letter to the Prime Minister and the Ontario Premier, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario says, “People need warm, safe shelter, reliable plumbing, nutritious food, and safe drinking water to be healthy. We need our leaders to put aside jurisdictional squabbles in the interests of preventing a humanitarian disaster in Attawapiskat.”
Mr. Angus offers a note of hope: “Since the state of emergency was declared, my office has been inundated with people wanting to help. I have been contacted by school kids trying to raise money for supplies; trades people who want to come north to help in a rebuilding project; average Canadians who simply ask — what can I do?
As inspiring as this is, it’s clear that nothing will really change until there is action from the officials whose job it is to ensure that these citizens of Ontario and Canada are treated with a basic level of respect and dignity. The cold winter winds are hitting James Bay. People may die if nothing is done. In a country as rich and as just as Canada this is simple unacceptable.”
KAIROS unites eleven Canadian churches and religious communities in faithful action for ecological justice and human rights.