First nations leaders say the international exposure of the living conditions in Attawapiskat, and the government’s insistence that the impoverished reserve pay for oversight it doesn’t want, have created new momentum for an upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The backdrop provided by the crisis in the remote Ontario reserve has created both “an enhanced understanding and a sense of urgency,” Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Thursday at the close of a three-day meeting of chiefs from across Canada.
The chiefs say they support Attawapiskat but want the government to remember that there are other first nations across Canada that are in equally bad straits, Mr. Atleo said.
“There is a need to maintain a balance, move immediately to the crisis needs, and then get on with a long-term solutions,” he said. “That is what I am hopeful to be able to initiate in the Crown gathering in January.”
Earlier this week, the residents of Attawapiskat kicked out the man appointed by the federal Conservative government to manage millions of dollars in federal funds that flow annually to the reserve.
On Thursday, it was revealed that the consultant, Jacques Marion of BDO Canada LLP, will receive $1,300 per day to a maximum of $180,000 between now and the end of June for his role as third-party manager. The money will come out of the first nation’s budget.
When asked in the House of Commons about the payments to Mr. Marion, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan replied: “We make no apologies for wanting to get value for taxpayers’ money.”
A spokeswoman for the minister said the costs will come from funds earmarked for band administration, and will not be diverted from money allocated to Attawapiskat for education, housing and social services.
Stan Louttit, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council which encompasses seven first nations in Northern Ontario including Attawapiskat, said paying the third-party manager will take a significant chunk of the budget of the first nation, which gets about $900,000 annually to pay councillors, administrators and all the expenses of running a local government.
Mr. Louttit said it is incumbent upon first nations chiefs to raise the problems exposed by Attawapiskat when they meet with Mr. Harper on Jan. 24. It’s time, he said, to say, “Let’s work together and not take these heavy-handed accusations and actions that you do.”
Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 first nations in the northern part of his province, said the chiefs want to discuss action in northern and remote communities when they meet with the Prime Minister.
Reserves in his own region are in similar condition, he said. One two-bedroom house has 29 people living in it, Mr. Harper said, and a two-year-old girl died of pneumonia last week in a home in Gods Lake Narrows shared by three families.
“Attawapiskat woke up this giant one more time,” Mr. Harper said. “We have a problem that we need to deal with.”