After seeing the images of Attawapiskat First Nation beamed around the country in recent days, a viewer could hardly be blamed for not believing that they were looking at a part of Canada, or that the people enduring this travesty are their aboriginal neighbours. Plywood walls, plastic-covered windows, 20 people sharing a two-bedroom house, a one-burner hot plate to cook for a whole family, lack of insulation, plumbing or electricity – the scene is tragic and heartbreaking.
But the people of such remote reserves have been living in a dire situation for a long time. The real shame of Attawapiskat is that the people who knew these conditions existed never told Canadians about them. Stephen Harper's Conservatives knew. Shawn Atleo's Assembly of First Nations knew. But it has taken a tragedy to reveal the stark truth.
It's Mr. Atleo's job as AFN national chief to know if his people are living under deplorable conditions. Each elected chief in the assembly has a responsibility to let him know. It's then his responsibility to tell Canada about it and demand action.
In turn, the federal government has the responsibility to act. The job of an aboriginal affairs minister includes informing government when people are suffering. With that knowledge, it's the responsibility of a prime minister to inform Canadians and tell us what the government intends to do about it.
Mr. Atleo failed to show leadership long ago. I've been a journalist since 1979, and I know how easy it is to craft a press release, hold a news conference and inform the public. But you have to want to do it. You have to want to confront wrong and demand change. I wonder if having his budget depend on a cozy relationship with the government prevents him from doing that.
In a recent interview with the CBC, Mr. Atleo alluded to a great number of other native communities in crisis. But rather than identify them and challenge the government to action, he let the opportunity pass. He murmured something about changing the status quo, yet squandered the opening to confront it.
Rather than initiate immediate physical action, Mr. Harper scheduled another meeting with Mr. Atleo. Then he put Attawapiskat under third-party management. What this effectively means is that the government put the blame squarely on the Indians. The subtext is that native leaders mismanaged millions and put their own people in danger. Meantime, nothing was being done for the people freezing in unheated tents, beyond the generosity offered by the Red Cross and fellow Canadians.
Interestingly, the result of Thursday's Harper-Atleo meeting was to agree to hold another meeting.
No, the real shame of Attawapiskat is that one government wants to ignore and blame while another wants to retain the status quo for its own survival and have another meeting. Shame on Mr. Atleo and Mr. Harper not doing anything before the story broke. Shame on them for merely booking another meeting. Shame on them for relying on the Red Cross to do the job they should have finished long ago. Shame on them for failing Canada.
Richard Wagamese is a National Newspaper Award-winning former columnist and author of 11 books, including the coming novel Indian Horse.