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First nations lament living conditions in 'many Attawapiskats'

Ninety per cent of the homes in Pikangikum, a first nations community 100 kilometres northwest of Red Lake, Ont., lack running water and sanitary facilities.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

With the spotlight on Attawapiskat, remote first nations across the country are now trying to turn the world's eyes to miserable conditions on their own reserves.

Television footage of people living in tents and plywood shacks brought national and international attention to the Ontario community of 1,700 near the shores of James Bay.

But Attawapiskat isn't the only Ontario reserve to have declared an emergency this fall as a result of housing conditions that mirror those in the poorest of developing countries. Kashechewan and Fort Albany did likewise.

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And now that the federal Aboriginal Affairs Department has come up with nearly $2-million to send 22 emergency housing units to the community that has preoccupied the media and the politicians, the other first nations want to see their own needs addressed.

"I am hopeful that the government will step in and help us with our housing situation in our community" where it is not unusual for three families to cram into one tiny home, Andrew Solomon, the chief of the Fort Albany First Nation, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

In Attawapiskat, decrepit shelters lack running water, sewage disposal and adequate sources of heating. But Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said last week that "these conditions are right across the country. We have many Attawapiskats."

The Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which encompasses 49 Ojibway, Cree and Oji-Cree first nations across northern Ontario, including Attawapiskat, is trying to draw attention to other reserves that are in a deplorable state.

Les Louttit, one of the NAN's three deputy chiefs and the person responsible for housing, said the AFN has suggested taking reporters to first-nations communities across the northern part of the province.

The trip could bring television cameras to Pikangikum, said Mr. Louttit, a "community that has no plumbing, or indoor water and sewage [pipes]in most of their homes and they just keep digging holes for their outhouses in their backyards and front yards and all over the place."

Michelle Yao, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, suggested on Monday that the aid sent by the government to Attawapiskat was not a one-time event.

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"When communities in Canada are in a state of emergency," Ms. Yao said in an e-mail, "our government is quick to act and we work with partners, like provincial emergency management officials, to address urgent needs of residents."

Mr. Duncan said last week that it has not yet been decided who will ultimately pay the bill for the homes sent to Attawapiskat. But fixing all of the housing problems at reserves across Canada would be an expensive venture.

Mr. Louttit said the Nishnawbe Aski Nation has used an annual inventory of first-nations homes conducted by the Aboriginal Affairs department to determine that roughly 5,000 new houses are needed for the 49 NAN reserves alone. A costing model developed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggests they would cost about $1.2-billion plus additional billions for water, sewer and power and road extensions, he said.

But housing is a human right, said Mr. Louttit. And the first nations are not going to let the issue drop off the national radar now that Attawapiskat has generated interest, he said.

"As we're approaching the Christmas season, obviously it's going to die for a while but it's not going to disappear," said Mr. Louttit. "We intend to keep it on the front pages."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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