Bureaucrats and humanitarian workers are surveying the conditions in the remote first-nations community of Attawapiskat, which has become the focus of international attention because of its deplorable living conditions.
Officials from the federal and Ontario governments were on the ground in the community, about 500 kilometres north of Timmins, on Monday. A team from the Red Cross is expected to arrive on Tuesday to assess what emergency measures can be taken.
“It doesn’t make me comfortable that there are people in Ontario who are living in these conditions,” said Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister. “I don’t think any of us can accept that it’s appropriate.”
Attawapiskat was declared a state of emergency four weeks ago because people are living in tarp shacks with no adequate heating sources or sewage disposal systems as winter sets in.
“It bothers me to admit that we had to go to this extreme before we were heard,” said Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowyk Council, which represents seven first nations, including Attawapiskat.
Mr. Louttit said he repeatedly tried to tell government officials about the plight of his people, but his words fell on deaf ears. “When you take action like this where you go to the media, where you make public announcements and you do press releases and press conferences and people see and hear, finally you begin to see results,” he said.
John Duncan, the federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, told the House of Commons on Monday that officials from his department were in the community “to investigate why the first nation is facing so many challenges given the significant funding for housing, infrastructure, education and administration.”
In a statement, the minister said his department has provided approximately $80-million to Attawapiskat First Nation since 2006, not including the money provided this year, and that the first nation was recently given $500,000 for urgent housing repairs.
But nearly half of the federal money that goes to Attawapiskat on a yearly basis is for education. Just under $1-million annually goes to housing, which includes other community infrastructure projects like roads and hydro lines.
Mr. Louttit called that “a drop in the bucket.”
It costs $250,000 to build a home on Attawapiskat, half of which is for transportation, he said. “Even if you did not renovate homes, did not build roads, did not do all of your capital works, and you just concentrated on housing, you could build maybe four or five houses every year. At that rate you wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Critics have said the Ontario government also needs to assume some of the blame for the conditions in the community because it receives royalties from a diamond mine on Attawapiskat traditional territory but has not returned that money to the local people.
Ms. Wynne said that Ottawa is ultimately responsible for aboriginal Canadians. “We’re part of a team,” she said. “The federal government has to take the lead.”