Skip to main content

A resident walks down the long hallway of a dorm-style trailer offering temporary shelter to those without homes in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Nov. 29, 2011. About 70 residents of the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario were flown to Kapuskasing starting Nov. 23, 2013. The band council declared an emergency this week in the James Bay coast community following a fire in a housing complex.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

Saturday's fire sheds fresh light on the deplorable housing conditions in Attawapiskat, a Cree reserve that skirts the shores of James Bay and is home to roughly 2,000 people. Seventy people, formerly living in connected trailers and left homeless by the blaze, have been evacuated to a Kapuskasing motel. There they have ample running water and plenty of flush toilets – luxuries compared with their living conditions back home.

As if in synchronicity, the Auditor-General of Canada's latest report, published on Tuesday, makes a strong case that, when it comes to dealing with emergencies on reserves, nobody appears to be in charge. The respective responsibilities of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Health Canada, the provinces and the communities themselves are still murky.

At Attawapiskat, little has changed since two years ago, when the community declared a state of emergency and appealed to the Red Cross for help. That was partly a media stunt, but conditions were dire. Children, the elderly and the ill were living in shacks not far from a raw sewage spill that had never been cleaned up.

What followed was one more chapter in a textbook of dysfunction. Ottawa put the community under third-party management, then changed its mind. Chief Theresa Spence dismissed an auditor's report critical of the band council's finances as a "distraction." Then she went on a hunger strike.

Turf wars, grandstanding and brinkmanship. The people in Attawapiskat are still stuck with the abysmal status quo. The trailers that went up in flames this past weekend were donated by De Beers Canada, which once used them to house workers at its nearby diamond mine. They were meant to be temporary housing. That was five years ago.

How is this remotely acceptable? Ottawa isn't entirely to blame, having funnelled $90-million in transfer payments to Attawapiskat since 2006, and another $500,000 to renovate existing housing after the 2011 crisis. Nor can the reserve's problems be solved by money alone. Its extreme isolation and non-existent economy make life there incredibly difficult for residents, wherever they sleep at night.

Ottawa and Chief Spence have some explaining to do. Neither, at this point, can claim ignorance.