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Attawapiskat housing crisis

Friday January 6, 2012

The Attawapiskat housing crisis drew national debate and brought First Nations funding issues to the forefront, making it Wawatay’s news story of the year.

The community declared a state of emergency in late-October as five families, including Elders and children, were living in tent frame shelters or sheds and were expected to endure the upcoming winter without proper housing. First Nation officials said they were living without running water, sewers or electricity. Some reportedly had to throw their sewage out in a ditch.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus made a Youtube video depicting the substandard housing conditions, and no government or outside organization responded to the emergency declaration until weeks later when the Canadian Red Cross said it would provide emergency relief. It was then that national media outlets visited the community and more photos emerged showing the living conditions.

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper under fire, he asked where the $96 million his government put into the community since 2006 went, putting the band’s financial management in question.
When the federal government finally acted, it put the First Nation under third-party management. This decision was met with strong opposition from Chief Theresa Spence and other leaders.

“It is incredible that the Harper government’s decision is that instead of offering aide and assistance to Canada’s First People, their solution is to blame the victim, and that the community is guilty and deserving of their fate,” Spence said on Dec. 1.

On Dec. 5, the third-party manager was ordered by the band council to go back on his plane when he attempted to go into the community. Meanwhile, in a display of unity, Spence and other chiefs left an Assembly of First Nations chiefs meeting in Ottawa to attempt to confront Harper and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan on Parliament Hill before being told to leave by RCMP officers.

Upon appointing a manager, the federal government agreed to provide 22 modular homes for the community and funds to renovate three houses. It also agreed to fund repairs for the community’s healing lodge, which will be used as a temporary shelter for the families while they await the arrival of the modular homes through the winter road in January.

The appointment of the third-party manager drew national debate. A blog clarifying how First Nations funding works, written by a Metis law student in Montreal, circulated on the Internet. Reports surfaced of how third-party managers only added to other First Nations’ financial turmoil instead of fixing it.

With the debate raging, Spence continued to oppose third-party management and said underfunding is the issue, not mismanagement.

Spence met with Duncan in Thunder Bay on Dec. 15. When he would not budge on the appointment of a manager – instead agreeing to remove him once the housing crisis is “over” and an audit is complete – Spence filed a court injunction after the meeting, calling third-party management “very impunitive, counterproductive and unreasonable.”


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