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Red Cross to aid Attawapiskat in housing crisis

Lisa Kioke stands beside her shelter at Attawapiskat near James Bay. The Canadian Red Cross has pledged to provide disaster relief for the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario after it declared a state of emergency last month due to abhorrent living conditions.

Charlie Angus/Charlie Angus

The Canadian Red Cross will take over emergency relief for stricken Attawapiskat, the first nation community that has declared a state of emergency amid a dire housing crisis.

The Red Cross is now preparing to co-ordinate donations, and buy blankets, generators and other items to bring them into the community, which can only be reached by air until winter ice roads form. Many people in the community of about 2,000 are living in tents or shacks, using extension cords from other houses as the only source of power.

"What we are focusing on is to make sure they have beds to sleep on while they are in those tents, as opposed to sleeping on the floor, having warm enough blankets, sleeping bags, generators," said John Saunders, the provincial director of disaster management for the Red Cross in Ontario.

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"We're also going to be looking with the community to address some temporary sanitation solutions, so that people aren't using buckets as toilets."

The crisis in Attawapiskat has led people from across Canada and even the United States to offer help, said Charlie Angus, the local New Democratic MP. Mr. Saunders said Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence asked the Red Cross to help coordinate those donations, which are now being accepted through the website.

It's not a crisis borne of a natural disaster. Attawapiskat is now in its fourth state of emergency because of chronic infrastructure failures, such as a massive sewage backup in 2009, and it can't afford long-term fixes with the federal funding it receives, Mr. Angus said. "This crisis needs a medium- and long-term solution, and only the federal government and the province can do that.

Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan said Friday that officials from his department will go to Attawapiskat this week to assess the situation. The federal government has offered $500,000 for renovations to houses; Chief Spence said last week the government pledged to provide another $2-million, but Ottawa said later no decision on that sum had been made.

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