Six years ago, there was a national crisis much like the one that raged in Attawapiskat late last year. In both cases, a Cree-Ojibway community with a population of about 1,800 approached the media, citing problems of overcrowding, toxic mould, substandard infrastructure and desperate poverty.
Seeing Kashechewan's crisis and how it was subsequently handled led me to move to that community on the James Bay shore, 100 kilometres southeast of Attawapiskat. I arrived in October, 2010, not realizing that the decision would change me, the place shaping my ideas and conscience in ways I had yet to imagine.
When Kashechewan officials first approached the media in October, 2005, their community's desperate living conditions caused an outpouring of sympathy. In subsequent government meetings, the band was promised more houses and better infrastructure – essentially a brand-new reserve. The estimated cost would be at least $300-million. Paul Martin, then prime minister, said Ottawa would "open wide its chequebook," and do "whatever is necessary."
Five years later, they were still waiting for the new infrastructure and most of that much-needed cash. The crisis and media attention had, however, brought some limited results: The reserve had received an extra $27.4-million – enough to renovate 78 homes and build 20 others.
Ottawa spent $16.1-million building a dike for the flood-prone community, and $9.6-million to clean up a school that burned and provide temporary school facilities. To prevent future E. coli outbreaks, the band had hired an outside consultant to manage the water plant.
"We just used the money the way it was supposed to be spent," Kashechewan deputy chief William Sutherland explained. "[Ottawa]gave us a few pennies. We put up a few houses, but it wasn't enough."
Poverty and grime
When I moved there, nothing could prepare me for the raw physicality of the place. The first thing I noticed was the dust.
Kashechewan is located on the northern shore of the Albany River. Like Attawapiskat, it has unpaved roads and James Bay onshore winds. And so in a place of -30C winters, where the trees have all been chopped down for fuel, the dust tumbles up, flecks of hard dirt swirling, muddying your clothes, stinging your eyes, making your gums gritty. It inflamed my asthma, causing me to wheeze.
At the band office, a man in his 40s never stopped mopping – a Sisyphean task, for moments after he finished, everything was again sheathed in grime.
He was one of the lucky ones: He had a job. A shocking 87 per cent of people in Kashechewan live on welfare. This is significantly higher than the 23-per-cent national on-reserve average, but it is a reality shared by many inhabitants of the James Bay coast and other remote fly-in communities.
Sometimes when the welfare ran dry, people would come to my door to sell whatever they had. One November evening, a woman and her seven-year-old daughter tried to sell a necklace for $10. It was a couple of days before her welfare cheque was due, and it was snowing hard, the wind tossing white flakes inside the house as mother and child stood on the doorstep.
I examined her beautiful bead design, with geometric swirls of colour: blacks, blues and yellows. I looked at the child tugging at her coat, and then, exhausted by the stream of hungry children, and desperate mothers, I said, "Sorry," and shut the door.
I am embarrassed and ashamed of my actions, but this would not be the last time that I looked away from the overwhelming need in Kashechewan.
While I was grocery shopping once, a thirtysomething woman approached to ask how she could buy fruit and vegetables and pay her hydro bill while living on welfare: $383 for a single person, including Northern Allowance.
"I don't know," I replied. And then our eyes met and I turned away, again embarrassed. She was overwhelmed by poverty, desperate enough to ask a stranger at the grocery store for help, and I didn't know what to do, how to help or even what to say.
The poverty and the Kafkaesque economics of this place mean that things most Canadians take for granted – being able to eat healthy food, for example – are out of reach. Everything is flown in, so when supplies finally arrive, they can cost five times what they would elsewhere in Canada.
On my first trip to the Northern Store, I bought a bunch of grapes ($13.42); a bag of apples ($15.29) and a red cabbage ($12.89), along with brown bread, pasta and other basics. I had tried to economize, but still the bill was $342.57 – nearly as much as a monthly welfare cheque. I handed the cashier a wad of 50s, and wondered, "How do people cope?"
That evening I discussed grocery budgeting with some residents, and I decided to switch to the local diet. I survived mainly on pepperoni sticks ($1.50 each), Kraft Dinner ($2.50 for 200 grams) and powdered-sugar doughnuts ($4.99 for eight).
After a few months, I had acne and rashes all over my body. I also put on 12 pounds, despite my efforts to eat less.
On reserves, the self-reported rates of diabetes and obesity are more than double the Canadian averages, at 19.7 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively.
The actual figures are probably even higher, says Lindsay MacMillan, a Toronto family physician who has worked in Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. "Obesity is the norm rather than the exception."
The poverty here also has a perverse effect on the birth rate. A woman can often double her $373 monthly welfare cheque by having a child.
Consequently, Kashechewan's birth rate is estimated to be 36 per 1,000 – three times the national rate. Several band councillors voiced worries about the population exploding when they already couldn't cope.
Dependence on the band
On reserves, power and money are focused at the top of the pyramid. The band determines which individuals get jobs, who lives where, whose roof is fixed after it caves in, and whose house is cleared of toxic mould. Without property rights, first nations people cannot get a mortgage or build any net worth or assets.
Such a system encourages institutionalized dependency and ignores decades of social-science research that confirms the links between property rights and prosperity, individual liberty and empowerment.
Many of those I spoke with are media-savvy, and acutely aware of the challenges of carving out a life on a reserve. Some, such as Jeremiah, a 35-year-old who did not want his real name published, had been trying to find permanent work for two years.
When we met, he was anxiously waiting to hear if he would be hired as a part-time garbage collector – a job that meant working outdoors in -30 weather.
"So, why don't you leave?" I asked.
"And do what?" he replied. "I don't have a high-school degree and I haven't worked in two years, so I won't be able to get a job."
I wanted to assure Jeremiah that everything was going to be fine. But we both knew that probably wasn't true.
Alexandra Shimo is a Toronto-based author and journalist, currently working on a book about life on the Kashechewan reserve.