Talking About Attawapiskat

It’s an understatement to say that Canada has a troubled relationship to the First Nations communities, and this time around, it’s Attawapiskat in the news, with an extreme housing deficit and inadequate housing, with an approaching Northern Ontario winter.

Quick recap: Attawapiskat is a First Nation near the western shore of James Bay, and as a result of a sewage backup a couple of years ago, there’s been an increasingly dire housing shortage in the community. Some families are living in tents or uninsulated shacks (in a region where winter temperatures average around -20 degrees Celsius), others are living in what were meant to be temporary shelters, and a state of emergency was called about two months ago to try to get some help, since little to nothing was being done to solve the problem.

It took the federal government a month, and considerable pressure from the local MP Charlie Angus, to pay any attention, and what attention they’ve paid has been accompanied by the usual trappings of paternalism. They appointed a third party to take over the finances of the band (though the band has rejected this appointee, and he’s not currently in the community), and the government has trotted out the figure that they’ve spent $90 million on the community over the past five years, with the implication that this is clearly enough money to fix these problems, and the band is either mismanaging the money or has skewed priorities or something. The government has also insisted that the band pay the consultant’s $1,300 a day salary, which is ludicrous.

What they don’t mention at the same time is that that $90 million is not just for infrastructure or housing, but for all the government services the community receives. The Indian Act stipulates that the federal government, not the provinces, provide all the government services of reserves. This means that health care and education on reserves are not managed by the provinces (who manage those services in the rest of the province) but by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Furthermore, since the community is remote and the climate harsh, infrastructure deteriorates more quickly than in more temperate regions of the country. Since provincial housing codes do not apply on reserve, the housing is often of poor quality in the first place, and there is no way to enforce a consistent or reasonable standard of construction.

And of course, the implication in all this is that the money was squandered, because that’s what Indians do. It’s fantastic to see that sort of dog whistle being thrown around by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs.

Never mind then that that money’s being spent on things like education and health care, things that off reserve are covered by provincial coffers, and are chronically underfunded on reserve; a student on a reserve receives on average half the government funding that a student off reserve receives. (Side note: the grade school in the community is on toxic land that’s contaminated with benzene, and has been shut for 12 years due to the fumes from the ground. Children were falling ill from the fumes that emanate from the ground, but there’s no evidence that a school will be built soon, even though the community has been insisting that a new one be built for years.) Infrastructure funding is also included in the $90 million, which I believe covers water and sewage systems. Plus that $90 million is for 2006-2011, not just 2011.

So suddenly the picture is very different. The community gets substantially less government funding than a typical comparably sized community in the south – but in the south, it’s broken up over different departments and levels of government, and it doesn’t look like a large number because no-one adds it all up. And there’s no cultural idea that says that rural non-Native citizens are just leeching off the government, and ought to be grateful for whatever scraps of funding and support they get. Hi there, racism, fancy seeing you here!

Also, about that business that the band’s hiding the financial statements? They’re available online.

Any allotment for housing must also account for the transportation costs of materials needed for construction and repair, which is considerable. The community is a fly-in community, though in the winter there is an ice road, which makes getting supplies in a considerable undertaking. Building a house in Attawapiskat is not the same as building a house in the south, and there’s no getting around that. Compounding the problem is the institutional neglect: many of the residents have been waiting years, even decades, for repairs to their house. As they wait, the housing deteriorates further and further, and when the repairs are finally done, they’re still insufficient. Patching things up just sticks a band-aid on the problem, rather than actually solving the housing crisis. That promise of 22 new houses at some indeterminate time in the future is woefully inadequate, and I’d bet good money that they won’t materialize this winter.

I don’t know how to begin permanently solving the issue of squalid conditions on reserves across Canada (Attawapiskat is not, by any means, the only community in this sort of situation), but we need a drastic revision of how aboriginal affairs are handled in this country. We need to increase the aboriginal voices in the political sphere, but non-Native Canadians also need to listen to and heed the voices that are already there. And non-Native Canadians need to then listen to those voices. As NDP MP and leadership candidate Romeo Saganash tweeted last week:

Learn four languages, negotiate treaties, defend rights, become an MP. Still get asked if you’re a ‘serious’ candidate. #nativeguyproblems

We need to stop treating First Nations as second class citizens and take meaningful steps towards undoing decades of racist policies and neglect. Yes, it will cost considerable sums of money, but it’s totally unacceptable to have people living in such awful conditions in a nation that has wealth to spare. The Red Cross should not have to compensate for our institutional negligence and apathy.

Further reading (all highly recommended):
Dealing with comments about Attawapiskat
Charlie Angus’s original essay on the Huffington Post, and a follow-up
CBC article on infrastructure on reserves
Red Cross’s page on how to donate to the Attawapiskat relief effort

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

6 replies on “Talking About Attawapiskat”

Thank you so much for covering this here, it just makes me sick, the way in which we chronically underfund First Nations Canadians living on reserves, and as soon as there is any type of problem the government essentially accuses natives of being unable to handle money. A very similar thing happened in Alberta about 3 years ago (I think at Hobbema) with contaminated water wells, and the rhetoric surrounding it was the same.

Also, embedded in all of this is the argument that “we shouldn’t be helping the natives at all” which is just insane. We took their land, attempted to ethnically cleanse their children through residential schools, abused, raped and murdered them, they deserve compensation for the generations of hurt and pain they have experienced at the hands of the British and Canadian governments.

How First Nations people are treated in this country is a national disgrace, and the blame that gets levelled at reserve leaders when astoundingly underfunded infrastructure crumbles is like a bully demanding “why are you hitting youself?!” to the kid who’s hand they’re using to punch.  I don’t know enough about the Indian Act to weigh in decisively about the reserve system, but I hear/read people saying that they should assimilate into Canadian society, and that just makes me livid.  After all the British and Canadian governments did to them, and people think the solution is that they should just vanish into Canadian society?!  I guess that hits the point of it — people who say things like that want First Nations people to vanish.  Fan-effing-tastic.


I completely agree with your post and your comment. However, I think part ( not even a large part, but still a part) of the problem is how isolated these communities are; having nothing to do beside hunt contributes to substance abuse, it is very  difficult to attract qualified teachers, and administrators, and as you mentioned, simply shipping basic supplies is difficult and expensive. For example, obesity and malnutrition are on the rise, because fruits and vegetables are difficult to ship and preserve when compared to foods with a great deal of sugar,fat, and preservatives. I also don’t have a great deal of knowledge about the reserve system, but simply having reserves in a more accessible location would help. I don’t know if the First Nations communities or the government would agree to this but clearly something needs to change, as you said.

Of course, the remoteness of many reserves compounds a lot of the problems, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable barrier.  Moving communities is a solution if the community wants to move, but I think there’s probably some creative solutions that can be used if they don’t want to move.

Not to mention the fact that assimilation, if it was the answer (which it totally isn’t), is almost impossible because of the historically entrenched racism against natives in our country. Would any of the people who declare so angrily that natives should just assimilate hire them, rent property to them, or give them fair opportunities? I doubt it.

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