The community, situated in far northern Ontario and made up of 1,800 mostly Cree citizens, has announced that its situation is dire, due to a "severe housing shortage". The community has been visited by an opposition MP and filmed. The images relayed back are horrifying. There are generations of families living in flimsy tents or shacks built from mismatched plywood and covered with tarpaulins. Mould seeps through insulation and runs down the walls. Pails of excrement are being thrown in ditches. Children have chronic skin diseases brought on by poor living conditions, others have third-degree burns caused by cheap stoves. A hundred people live in a prefab trailer, crammed into rooms with just four bathrooms for all. The temperature drops a few more degrees below zero every day. It gets as low as -40C in the winter – without the wind chill. Mothers say baby shampoo freezes sitting on the shelf.
Most citizens of Attawapiskat have endured these desperate conditions since a sewage overflow drove them from their homes in 2009. Some have lived this way for longer. Now, with most temporary accommodations deteriorating, the situation has become critical. Butdespite repeated calls to the department of Indian and northern affairs, their issues have been ignored.
The federal government's response to the crisis has been a combination of arrogance and bullying. The prime minister, Stephen Harper, stood up in parliament to argue that widespread corruption on the part of band leaders was to blame, stating: "This government has spent some $90m since coming to office just on Attawapiskat. That's over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community. Obviously we're not very happy that the results do not seem to have been achieved for that."
As the author of the apihtawikosisan blog points out, this figure not only conflates the amounts allocated for education, maintenance, healthcare and social services but ignores the cost difficulties brought about by Attawapiskat's remote location and the fact it is over a number of years. Full government-sponsored audits since 2005 are available on theofficial Attawapiskat website.
Then Harper placed Attawapiskat in third-party management. Last Monday, when the controller arrived, he was promptly asked to leave by the community – and did. Now, the aboriginal affairs minister, John Duncan, has given Attawapiskat two choices: either hand over control of their affairs directly to the federal government (at a cost of $180,000 to the community), or evacuate the needy families. As chief Theresa Spence states in a press release: "It is incredible that the Harper government's decision is that instead of offering aid and assistance to Canada's First Peoples, their solution is to blame the victim, and that the community is guilty, and deserving of their fate."
All this speaks to the reasons why Canada's indigenous peoples are in such a difficult situation today. After centuries of federal practices and policies that robbed First Nations of their children, their languages and their right to self-determination, the disastrous consequences will not be undone easily. At the same time, Canadians continue to benefit tremendously from resources and land extracted from First Nations while failing to fulfil their obligations through the treaties that gave them access to these riches.
As recommended by Canada's royal commission on aboriginal peoples, massive investment and a true commitment to supporting First Nation self-government and self-sustainability are required to reverse the damage wrought by this history. A national meeting between First Nations leaders and the federal government – where issues like health, housing, and education will be discussed – has been announced for early 2012.