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A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
A man walks down the street in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Aboriginal crisis

Government offers to provide more housing for Attawapiskat Add to ...

The Conservative government has agreed to provide more housing for Attawapiskat, but only if it is purchased by the federally appointed consultant who was kicked out of the remote Northern Ontario reserve when he arrived this week to manage the finances.

Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, can hardly refuse the offer of assistance. But she has declared consultant Jacques Marion to be a “modern-day Indian agent,” and his appointment by Ottawa to be an unnecessary and patronizing affront to her first nation’s sovereignty.

So this new help for the community of about 1,700, where some people are living in tents and plywood shacks, is likely to be perceived by first-nations leaders as another example of the federal government acting in a unilateral and heavy-handed fashion.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Wednesday in a letter to Ms. Spence that an assessment has determined an additional 15 modular homes are required to address the short- and medium-term needs of the community.

“The third-party manager is prepared to act immediately on the purchase of these modular homes so they can be delivered on the winter roads as soon as they open,” Mr. Duncan wrote. Those who are living in tents could be evacuated until the modular homes arrive, he said.

In an accompanying statement, Mr. Duncan urged Ms. Spence and her council “to work with our government and the third party manager as we move forward together.”

Since a state of emergency was declared in Attawapiskat a month ago as a result of deplorable housing conditions, the federal Conservative government has sent high-efficiency wood stoves and portable toilets and offered $500,000 to address the immediate crisis. The money will be used to renovate homes for five families.

But first-nations leaders have been asking for more help and say the military, unlike Mr. Marion, would be most welcome.

Stan Louttit, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council which encompasses seven first nations in Northern Ontario including Attawapiskat, said Wednesday that troops could provide emergency shelters and help transport housing materials to the reserve, which declared a state of emergency a month ago over its deplorable living conditions.

“Whenever there is a crisis in any part of Ontario, or Canada, or overseas, what do other countries do? What to neighbours do?” asked Mr. Louttit, who is attending a conference of chiefs from across Canada in Ottawa.

“Well they provide emergency help, right?” he said. “And the military come in with their disaster-relief equipment and expertise and help out. And what we’re saying is we’re in a crisis as well, right in the backyard of Canada. And why not? Why can’t they come in and provide some relief?”

Nycole Turmel, the interim NDP leader, wrote a letter Wednesday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking on behalf of the first nation for troops to be sent in.

“Our military has played an incredible role at times of other humanitarian crises in Canada. I am sure that you will agree that the conditions facing people in Attawapiskat are dire and likely to get worse as the winter sets in,” Ms. Turmel wrote.

But Mr. Duncan indicated little enthusiasm for the idea.

“We have been working around the clock on a plan to ensure residents, especially children, have warm, dry places to sleep,” he replied when asked about the military option in the House of Commons. “We have a plan. We are still committed to working with the band council and we urge it to be part of the solution going forward.”

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