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Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 24, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 24, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Aboriginal Affairs Minister dispatches team to Attawapiskat Add to ...

The deplorable conditions in a Northern Ontario first-nations community where people are living in tents without running water, adequate heating, or sewage disposal have prompted a response from the federal government.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told the House of Commons on Friday he is sending staff from his department into Attawapiskat to assess the situation, which has shocked people across Canada and around the world.

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“We are deeply concerned about the situation,” Mr. Duncan said. “The community is facing a number of challenges. We have had ongoing discussions with the chief and council in order to make progress on addressing these issues. My officials will be in the community early next week to discuss next steps.”

Monique Sutherland, the housing manager for the Attawapiskat First Nation, said she had not been told officially that federal representatives would be paying her community a visit but she is glad to hear of Mr. Duncan’s interest. “That’s what we need,” she said.

New Democrat Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the village of about 2,000 people, said it has been four weeks since Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency. With the cold weather settling in, band leaders have asked for the government to pay for an evacuation.

“People are in danger because of the cold temperatures,” Mr. Angus said, arguing the problems in the community are a result of “chronic underfunding and systemic negligence,” in terms of infrastructure, education, housing and health.

“The situation is causing an international outcry and Canadians are rightly saying, how can this happen in a country as rich as Canada?”

Ms. Sutherland said one family of four is living in a shack made of plywood with a tarp roof. There is no plumbing, the only heat source is a wood stove, and they are getting power with an extension cord that is plugged in next door.

Mr. Duncan agreed the community has a number of challenges. One of them, he said, is its indebtedness, which is getting in the way of other progress that could be made. “Part of our overall next steps is to get to a place where proper local administration and governance can ensure there is progress being made in the community.”

But Mr. Angus said the debt problems Attawapiskat stem from the time two years ago when a massive sewage backup in 2009 forced the evacuation of 90 people.

“We tried to get the families out. Indian Affairs told them to stay in the homes. We had almost 100 people homeless,” Mr. Angus he said.

Chuck Strahl, who was at that time the Indian affairs minister for the Conservative government, did nothing to help, the New Democrat added.

“So the community had to do their own evacuation,” he said. “That’s why they’re in debt. They had to pay for the cost of looking after their own people because they had no place to put them in the community.”

The conditions in the community have been compared to those in an impoverished developing country. Many people live in trailers that were left behind by DeBeers Canada Inc., the diamond mining company. Those trailers were intended as temporary housing but have become permanent residences.

Human waste is being dumped into ditches and the lack of hygiene is causing the spread of lice and scabies.

Mr. Angus says the problems in Attawapiskat can be traced to chronic underfunding by Ottawa going back through several governments, both Liberal and Conservative.

But, he said, the province on Ontario and its Liberal government also shares in the blame. “We can’t even build more houses in Attawapiskat because the province has been dragging their heels,” he told reporters.

The province is making “phenomenal royalties” off DeBeers and its Victor Mine, which is located about 80 kilometers from the town on the traditional territory of the Attawapiskat First Nation, Mr. Angus said. “Yet the province takes that money, spends it on general revenues and when Attawapiskat says ‘Hey, we’re in crisis, we don’t have a dime for infrastructure,’ the province says, ‘You’re not our problem, go talk to the feds.’”

One priority is to get the Red Cross to provide immediate aid, the NDP MP said. The federal government, he added, must look at how to get people out of tents and unheated cabins immediately.

And then there needs to be a longer-term solution. The new school promised by Mr. Duncan will be a major help, Mr. Angus said. But the community also needs “a new housing subdivision, we need it built with proper sewage, we need to look at the water right now.”

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