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NDP challenges Harper to visit Attawapiskat himself

Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel steps out of a shelter being used as temporary housing in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The NDP is challenging Stephen Harper to visit Attawapiskat and show he "gives a damn" about the people living on the Northern Ontario reserve.

In back-to-back scrums with reporters Wednesday, Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel and Timmins–James Bay MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the aboriginal community, demanded the Prime Minister take a look for himself instead of acting like he's the "victim."

Mr. Angus and Ms. Turmel toured the reserve Tuesday as Mr. Harper told the Commons the government has already spent $90-million on Attawapiskat. "That is over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community," he said.

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That comment outraged opposition politicians, prompting Mr. Angus to accuse the Prime Minister of being callous.

"I am astounded that a month into the crisis nobody is saying, 'Why isn't the federal government doing something?' They are saying, 'Why are these victims crying out?'" Mr. Angus charged.

The NDP MP said the story would be entirely different if it were not about a first nations community.

"Where there's a fire, boy oh boy, the politicians run in there and their pictures are being taken. When there's a flood, you see the leader walk in there and say, 'We're going to help and we're going to bring aid.' When it's a first nations community that calls for a state of emergency and a month passes and nobody shows up, that says something," he argued.

Along with the NDP politicians, journalists and Aboriginal Affairs bureaucrats also went to the reserve Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the housing situation, where people are living in unheated tents and shacks.

On top of the housing crisis, the community faces high food prices, Ms. Turmel said, noting that a pint of milk costs $10.

"It is an emergency situation," the Interim NDP Leader said. "They need housing, they need affordable housing. .... They need food, they need heaters. ... They need all kind of things. ... It's unacceptable in Canada."

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Indeed, the Red Cross is providing emergency relief to the community, which is west of James Bay. It has brought in winter sleeping bags, clothing and other supplies.

"I would love for the Prime Minister to go there and maybe he won't talk about money. Maybe he will talk about the people," Ms. Turmel said. "I want him to go on site and see where the money is going."

Her cost break-down indicates the people of Attawapiskat each received $6,500 – which is "not even poverty level."

Eighty per cent of the money has gone for education, she said, noting the school in the community is built on a toxic field.

The first priority, she said, should be a short-term plan to resolve the housing situation and help people as winter approaches. Then there should be discussions with aboriginal leaders on a long-term solution.

"This government has to take some leadership and see what the problem is there," said Ms. Turmel. "[The people of Attawapiskat]need money, it's clear. They need a plan at the same time ... to create something out there."

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The Liberals also called on the Prime Minister to see for himself the situation in the aboriginal community.

"Why wouldn't he go there? Why wouldn't the Prime Minister of Canada be somebody who is available and accessible," Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said after his party's caucus meeting.

But the situation is not limited to this one community, he added.

"We are reaching a crisis point here," Mr. Rae said, arguing the Conservatives have to fashion a different relationship between aboriginal groups, the provinces and Ottawa.

Self-government is crucial, he said. "We have created a pattern of dependence. It's about giving the aboriginal community themselves the power to make decisions."

Calling the native poverty "unfinished business," the Liberal chief added: "It's the biggest thing left on our agenda as a country."

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