Despite cajoling by the federal opposition parties, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will not be paying a visit to the troubled Ontario first-nation of Attawapiskat.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae travelled to the remote community over the weekend and chided the Prime Minister for not taking the time to see Attawapiskat’s housing crisis first-hand. A similar complaint was voiced last month by NDP Leader Nycole Turmel after she took her own tour of the living conditions on the remote reserve.
But Mr. Harper will not make a similar trek.
“Our top priority is getting help to those in need,” Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said in an e-mail on Sunday. “The Prime Minister will not be going to Attawapiskat. (Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan) is working with the third-party manager (Jacques Marion) to get services and shelter to residents.”
Mr. Duncan has also not travelled to Attawapiskat. When he met with the reserve’s chief, Theresa Spence, last week he went to Thunder Bay rather than fly to the remote reserve.
The Conservative government has responded to the crisis in Attawapiskat by suggesting that the problems faced by the reserve are largely administrative. Over the objections of Ms. Spence and her council, Ottawa has sent in Mr. Marion to oversee how the millions of dollars in federal funding that Attawapiskat receives every year is spent.
Mr. Marion, who is being paid $1,300 a day from band funds, has purchased 22 modular homes to meet the immediate needs of the community of 1,800. The federal government has allocated an additional $500,000 to retrofit a local healing centre for use as a temporary shelter until the homes arrive this winter. It has also offered to evacuate people who are in desperate need.
But Mr. Rae. who spent Saturday in the community, accuses Mr. Harper and his government of failing to show respect toward the people of the troubled reserve.
“Many of them reasonably well housed, but many really badly housed,” he said Sunday on CTV’s Question Period. “Some housing conditions just, just really terrible. Kids sleeping in the kitchen, slop pails, no running water.” In one case, 20 people are living together in a two-room house.
When he was the NDP premier of Ontario in the 1990s, Mr. Rae made the living conditions of first-nations in the northern part of the province a top priority for his government.
“Some of the community has running water because of some changes that were made in Ontario in the, in the early 90s in terms of allowing those communities to apply for provincial grants as well as federal grants,” he said. “So it's, it's not a hopeless situation. It's just a very serious one. It's just one where there's too many people living in really dire conditions.”
Like Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Mr. Rae said it is time to scrap the paternalistic law that has governed the relationship between first nations and the Crown.
“I do think we have to move beyond the Indian Act. I don't think it works any more as a piece of legislation,” said Mr. Rae. “I think we have to also look at the kind of resources that we're prepared to transfer and give more authority to responsible regional bodies and get the provinces more engaged and involved. There's a whole federal-provincial thing here that isn't working at all and I think we've really got to think much bigger.”