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Samuel Metat moves firewood which he sells to residents in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. Prices for firewood range from $150-$200 per cord. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Samuel Metat moves firewood which he sells to residents in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. Prices for firewood range from $150-$200 per cord. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In Attawapiskat, deep-rooted problems won't disappear in an instant Add to ...

There is no word for diamond in Cree.

“They hear about the diamonds,” said Maryanne Wheesk, a middle-aged grandmother in the remote James Bay community of Attawapiskat, “and they think we're rich.”

I sat down with Ms. Wheesk two years ago, long before Attawapiskat had declared a state of emergency, and long before a housing crisis transformed the mispronounced dot on a map to a mainstay of the national conversation.

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The plight of the inhabitants here is a familiar one among isolated aboriginal communities. They lack access to clean drinking water. They lack adequate shelter. And the persistent questions about economic viability are lost in a haze of mutual recrimination with Ottawa: Complaints about mistreatment by the federal government are met with accusations of fiscal mismanagement and poor governance.

But there is one thing unique to Attawapiskat, something that had – for a time, at least – given residents reason to believe their story would be a different one.

Just upriver from the three-bedroom home that Ms. Wheesk shares with 17 of her family members, and 500 kilometres from the nearest road, lies a deposit of low-grade kimberlite. Although there are few diamonds per ton of ore, the ones that are there are of an incredibly high quality – so high, in fact, that when experts saw the first sampling, they assumed the raw product had already been sorted. It hadn't. An average diamond sells for $80 a carat; Attawapiskat's go for more than $400.

It's why De Beers decided to develop the property and create Ontario's first diamond mine, dubbed Victor. When it began operations in 2008, the South African mining giant estimated it would contribute $6.7-billion to the Ontario economy in its 12-year lifespan. Residents, meanwhile, predicted the nearby mine would bring jobs, training, and the kind of economic permanence that had always eluded them.

But as the past few months have shown, things haven't improved. Some argue the decline has just continued.

“It's been like this for so many years – and it keeps getting worse,” Chief Theresa Spence said on the eve of her visit to Ottawa this week. “We don't have enough finances, and we never did.”

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Band co-manager Clayton Kennedy managed Attawapiskat's finances from 2001 through 2004, and was rehired in July, 2010.

In the five years he was not with the band, he said, things became “a financial nightmare.” He believes the first nation was in over its head.

“It wasn't so much people pocketing money, or flying to Bermuda,” he said. “It was more, too many trips to Timmins and too many workshops.” The band also hired too many staff, even at the risk of running a deficit, he said. This resulted in young, inexperienced workers “occupying positions, even when they were not capable of doing the job.” Attawapiskat has an unemployment rate of more than 60 per cent, and “there was a mentality to hire as many people as possible in order to get money on the table, so people could buy food and get off welfare.”

In January, Mr. Kennedy implemented a new remedial management plan, drastically changing the way business was conducted. Mr. Kennedy has residents paying for rent, water, sewer, garbage and electrical fees, something that was not well managed previously.

But the problems here are deep-rooted, and not easily overcome – particularly when it comes to infrastructure. Many young people, for instance, don't know what it's like to have a normal elementary school. For them, it's six grey portables beside an abandoned lot. Over two decades, more than 150,000 litres of diesel leaked into the substructure of the J.R. Nakogee elementary school without anyone noticing. Rosie Koostachin remembered the smell, a heady mix of burnt tar and gasoline. Now 38, she's anemic, gets migraines, has high blood pressure and consistently irregular pap tests.

When the school was demolished in 2009, Ms. Koostachin's house was covered in a fine layer of grey dust. “We were all sleepy, got headaches, started coughing and had watery eyes.”

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