What can we learn from Attawapiskat?

Attawapiskat mirrors many Attawapiskats across the country where native people live in squalid conditions.

Last week, the appalling housing crisis on the Attawapiskat reserve shocked the nation and forced the federal government to implement third-party management of the band. That step infuriated Chief Theresa Spence but it’s a step in the right direction to helping the community get a handle on its financial affairs. Ultimately, though, this crisis is a community problem that should to be dealt with by the community and fixed for the long term.

Some 1,800 people live in the remote region where traditionally they have survived on trapping and hunting. Some of them have found work with DeBeers at their Victory diamond mine located 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat.

The housing crisis in this northern Ontario Cree community at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay has been festering for years. In July 2008 a massive sewage flood dumped waste into eight buildings housing 90 people. (Then) Chief Theresa Hall approached the federal government about their lack of response to the problem but the feds said they had provided $700,000 to fix the problem. Yet these families lack the basics of life in the north: running water, plumbing, insulation and proper heating.

Prime Minister Harper said last week that the conservative government has targeted $90 million to Attawapiskat since 2006 and federal officials want to know where that money has gone.

Just as the Red Cross made front page news delivering emergency supplies to the community, taxpayers across the country asked the same thing. And it wasn’t lost on many that there’s a stinging sense of embarrassment to see First Nations people living in Canada existing in third world conditions.

Why?

Decades of neglect, indifference, and a profound lack of understanding of their culture and language have clouded our judgment and focus. Northern natives live in a world few Canadians have any concept of.

Attawapiskat mirrors many Attawapiskats across the country where native people live in squalid conditions. The Assembly of First Nations counts 630 native communities in Canada and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (DAAND) has 67 co-managed reserves and 11 third-party managed reserves.

DAAND identifies three levels of intervention policy. The first involves the reserve members putting together a plan to get its financials back on track. The second involves co-management in which the band council and DAAND agree on a co-manager who has signing authority on all accounts containing federal funding. Attawapiskat has been at this level for almost ten years. Under third-party management, all funding goes through a manager appointed by DAAND to administer it. But it must be a temporary arrangement with the end result seeing the band self-reliant.

Getting to the root cause and fixing the problem isn’t just about throwing more money at the problem but understanding the unique needs of northern people and responding appropriately. They need buildings designed and constructed so that they can cope not just with harsh winters but withstand the coming rigors of climate change. Their youth need access to education at the practical and locally driven level so that they can learn vital trade skills such as construction, plumbing, electrical, and welding; business skills that include accounting, money management, planning, and marketing, and health care, child care, and nursing skills. And there have to be jobs at the end of it. It’ll be a tough call; 90 per cent of Attawapiskat residents are unemployed.

Maybe this crisis is a national wake-up call for change. Over $9 billion of taxpayer money finances aboriginal programs and services annually. Education and investment in the appropriate infrastructure must yield the end results in which native people have the skill sets to run their own affairs and make their own decisions.

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