Attawapiskat: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Maybe it’s that Attawapiskat is a remote Native community on James Bay in northern Ontario. Maybe it’s that the ‘national’ papers (Globe and Mail, National Post) haven’t covered the story. Maybe it’s that no one cares. But for some reason the government of Ontario and Canada are ignoring an abhorrent situation in their own back yard.

Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in her community a month over extremely poor living conditions on the northern Ontario reserve. Since then, no government officials have been to the community or done anything to help. On November 18, Chief Spence requested that the community be evacuated before winter sets in.

There is no single cause of the emergency. Conditions in Attawapiskat  have been deteriorating significantly for over a decade. And now, around 1,800 people live in 303 houses, with much of the community overflowing from the houses into tents or shacks built close by. The state of the houses themselves are in such disrepair — mold, sewage and roof leakage — that they are only a slight improvement on the makeshift structures.

In the Huffington Post, Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins-James bay, writes,

Presently there are five families living in tents; 19 families living in sheds without running water; 35 families living in houses needing serious repair; 128 families living in houses condemned from black mould and failing infrastructure; 118 families living with relatives (often 20 people in a small home); there are 90 people living in a construction trailer. There’s a need for 268 houses just to deal with the immediate backlog of homelessness.

“I often have to remind myself that I am still working in the province of Ontario,” Dr. Elizabeth Blackmore told the Toronto Star. Dr. Blackmore is one of 12 family doctors who serve the James Bay coast.

Although the situation in Attawapiskat is grievous, it is by no means a new one. Cameron Dearlove, an Employment Counsellor and Job Developer/Employer Liaison living in Kitchener, Ontario would like us to consider this hypothetical situation:

Imagine that in Kitchener, or Mississauga, or Calgary there is an elementary school. It’s a bit older but structurally it seems fine. At some point a diesel pipeline begins leaking underneath the school. Deisel, under the school, with children in it. It doesn’t go detected for 21 years until students are winding up sick. The school closes in 2000. The parents of these children say, ‘well, we clearly need a new school.’ The government says no.

Dearlove argues that this situation is only hypothetical  in that it wouldn’t happen in Kitchener, Mississauga or other Canadian urban centres. Kids in those areas would get a new school. But not kids in Attawapiskat, who have gone without a proper school for over a decade.

Temporary portables were erected to house the students until a new school was built. In the meantime, three Indian and Northern Affairs Ministers have promised to build a new school.  The students are still waiting, and coping with portables that are not properly insulated, making them cold and damp, leak during heavy rains, and are not suitable when temperatures fall below -40. Rats are also a common sighting in the ‘temporary’ school.

A new promise of a school has been made to the people of Attawapiskat. The new school is scheduled to be completed in 2013, but at this point, the community is not holding its breath. At the Wawatay NewsXavier Kataquapit believes that this situation would never have been allowed to reach this point in any other part of non-Native Canada:

How would parents, politicians and communities have reacted if this exact situation occurred in Timmins, North Bay or Toronto? If this had occurred in southern Ontario, the situation would have made headlines and a solution would have been found immediately. I do not believe that a problem such as this would have been allowed to carry on for eleven years in a non-Native community.

It’s hard to argue against Xavier’s position. I somehow doubt that residents of Toronto or Vancouver, or any other urban centre for that matter, would be given this type of governmental treatment.

If only there were some sort of development in the region to boost the local economy and support infrastructure. Something along the lines of the De Beers Victor Mine might do the trick, located 80km from Attawapiskat.

“Mining activity is providing a ray of sunshine in a region where little economic activity has occurred in the past 30 years,” Shannin Metatwabin, a manager with De Beers Canada, told a crowd at the Mining Ready Summit in Timmins, Ontario just days before the emergency declaration in Attawapiskat. Metatwabin manages Aboriginal affairs and sustainability for the De Beers Mine.

The economic benefits to the people of Attawapiskat were widely touted by Premier Dalton McGuinty back in 2006 in the early stages of the De Beers Mine project, but many people in the community have suggested the economic benefits have been negligible. The state of emergency in terms of housing and the deplorable situation involving the local school would suggest that the scepticism is well founded.

In 2005, a letter from MinesWatch Canada to Brett Maracleat at the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency outlined some serious concerns about the feasibility of the supposed benefits for the Attawapiskat community. In the letter, MinesWatch Canada pressed for a delay so that the local First Nations communities could adequately prepare for the new project. Educational and social preparation within the community would have been crucial, they argued, so that local individuals would have been able to compete for higher level jobs. The local economy was also in need of preparation for the inflation — in housing costs/availability, among others — that inevitably comes with an influx of out-of-region workers.

“There are real challenges to employment of the people of Attawapiskat in jobs
requiring more than limited skills,” the letter recognized, advocating a delay in the project until preparation could be made in the community. Without such a delay, the letter argued, proper attention would not be paid to the sustainable economic development needs of Attawapiskat, and only to the insistent, profit driven responsibility of De Beers to its shareholders. Indeed, the De Beers mine boasts a 44% aboriginal workforce, in entry level positions.

Ignoring the dire circumstances in Attawapiskat seems to be the tactic of government officials. The responsibility to implement equitable standards for education, fire safety and building codes for citizens in Ontario rests with the province of Ontario. But, as Charles Angus points out, when residents of Attawapiskat ask for help they are told that they are a federal responsibility:

Ironically, the province doesn’t take the same attitude when it comes to the immense wealth coming out of Attawapiskat’s back yard. The De Beers Victor Mine is the richest diamond mine in the Western world. Just recently, the province upped the royalty tax at the mine from nine per cent to 11 per cent to ensure an even higher return for the provincial coffers. Not a dime of provincial royalty money comes back to help the community with infrastructure or development.

To say that the De Beers mine was the catalyst for the current emergency would be unfair. The problems facing Attawapiskat go back further than the operations at the mine, but if the economic benefits of the mine are to have a lasting positive impact, a good start would be supporting the education of the local population so that they may aspire to jobs above entry level positions. To get a head start on that goal, I advise going back in time to before the first shovel broke ground at the De Beers mine and constructing a school that meets the expected educational standards living in Canada, whether it’s a Native community or not. No, that would be too late, the students would have already been without a school for over half a decade by then.

So, how about the provincial and federal governments, at bear minimum, take the first baby step and make sure these citizens of Canada, one of the wealthiest nations of the world, have a decent place to live for the near future. Winter is coming.


  1. But how much money have they received over the years? Is it the fault that no one cares, or is it the fault of the community for not being wise with the money they do it.

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