This November the story of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat broke into mainstream news. The Huffington Post Canada ran an article by Timmins–James Bay New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, on November 21st, 2011. That was three weeks after Chief Theresa Spence officially declared a state of emergency for her region.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario has sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper and Premier McGuinty imploring the government to intervene:
As Canadians, we are shocked by the life-threatening conditions in which residents of this community must live. Families are living in tents, in sheds without running water, in overcrowded conditions, in substandard homes that are unsafe due to mold, lack of indoor plumbing, and wood-fire heating. We are deeply ashamed that federal and provincial officials are pointing fingers at each other and refuse to take responsibility, particularly as children and elders of Attawapiskat face life-threatening conditions as winter approaches. As nurses, we are profoundly concerned about the dangers of fire, freezing, infectious diseases, skin conditions, and mental health challenges that arise when people are force to live in inhumane conditions.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackmore, one of the 12 family doctors serving the James Bay coast and the Attawapiskat community remarked that she has a hard time reconciling with the fact that these are the conditions for some people in a country as prosperous as Canada:
In one case as many as 27 people are living in a home while up to 90 live in a construction trailer left behind by the diamond mining company De Beers Canada Inc.
“I often have to remind myself that I am still working in the province of Ontario,” said Blackmore, a former Toronto physician.
She said the overcrowding and lack of hygiene lead to increased infectious diseases, scabies, lice, respiratory problems and acute depression. Substance abuse and suicide often follow.
“From a medical perspective, we see this as an emergency and that something has to be done,” she said.
Writing in the Toronto Star, Oakland Ross describes some of the struggles that the Attawapiskat community faces because of their isolated Northern location:
For most of the year, Attawapiskat is accessible only by air, a factor that complicates almost every aspect of life here. Even simple home repairs can become impossible because neither the materials nor the skills exist locally.
The lack of adequate funding and government care is especially astounding, considering that the area’s De Beers owned diamond mine pays so well into the Ontario provincial tax base:
Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit also noted Friday that while people in Attawapiskat are without basic necessities, the Ontario government continues to make money from a nearby De Beers diamond mine. He says negotiations should be reopened to review why the government receives 13 per cent of profits from the mine, while the reserve only receives about one per cent.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates that reserves need about 80,000 new homes across the country. Already about 45 per cent of first nations housing stock is substandard, but often people live in condemned houses because they have nowhere else to go
On Tuesday, November 28th, the Red Cross stepped in to provide some on the ground support for Attawapiskat. The question remains: Shouldn’t the Canadian government have been able to stop this tragedy before it came to this?
We should all be shocked and appalled as I am and we must all answer this call,” [Assembly ofFirst Nations National Chief] Atleo said in the statement. “I have seen these same deplorable and heart-wrenching situations throughout many remote and northern communities. This is why First Nations leaders are calling on the federal government and others to work with us now on transformative change.
“We simply cannot afford to lose another generation,” Atleo’s statement concludes. “We owe it to them to provide them every opportunity to realize their potential.
NDP interim leader Nicole Thurmel and Timmins–James Bay MP Charlie Angus accompanied Tuesday’s Red Cross emergency visit:
Turmel told CBC News the conditions she observed were deplorable, with as many as 100 people living in construction portables and others living in shacks without heat or running water.
“I am upset at both governments, at both federal and provincial governments … for not taking any action to ensure that those people live in a decent place,” she said. “This is unacceptable in Canada.”