It has been called Haiti at minus 40 degrees celsius. Attawapiskat, an isolated Cree First Nations community located near James Bay in northern Ontario, is enduring a severe housing crisis that is just the latest in a series of tragedies that have affected the health and well-being of its residents.
With a current population of just under 2000 people, Attawapiskat was established as a settlement of permanent buildings in the 1960s. In 1979, a diesel spill contaminated the soil near the community’s elementary school. The students suffered bad health effects and the school was ultimately condemned in 2000, displacing the students to portables, where they continue to learn today.
In the last five years, Attawapiskat has suffered through flooding, a power outage that forced the evacuation of the local hospital (because it had no backup generators) and a sewage spill that dumped waste into eight homes housing 90 people.
Meanwhile, since 2008, DeBeers Canada is mining diamonds at a site just 90 kilometers west of Attawapiskat. The contrast between the extraction of such wealth, utilizing the most modern facilities, alongside such deprivation led Attawapiskat residents to travel to Toronto in 2009 to confront DeBeers. They argued that the company had not lived up to its agreement to provide employment opportunities and building materials to the community.
The current crisis results from the growing number of residents, including babies and young children, living in tents or wooden shacks with no electricity, running water or toilets. With winter temperatures routinely dropping well below minus 20 degrees Celsius, heat is provided by improvised (and potentially dangerous) wood-burning stoves. Many of those lucky enough to live in houses have to deal with mould and overcrowding.
The NDP has been at the forefront of the response to this situation. Local NDP MP Charlie Angus spoke out about Attawapiskat’s challenges well before the present crisis. He recently twice visited the community, the second time in the company of NDP Interim Leader Nycole Turmel. (The NDP’s late Leader, Jack Layton, who visited in 2007, described the conditions he saw as “abominable.”)
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on the other hand, initially reacted by blaming the leadership of the Attawapiskat First Nation, stating that the crisis was “unacceptable” in light of the funds provided by the federal government to the band. This led to the appointment of a private-sector consultant to manage the reserve’s finances, at a cost of $1300 per day, to be billed to the First Nation.
The situation in Attawapiskat is a reminder to Canadians that many of our First Nations’ brothers and sisters on reserves live in Third World conditions, inside one of the wealthiest countries on earth. Centuries of cultural genocide and indifference have left many First Nations communities struggling with alcoholism and solvent abuse, suicide epidemics, gang violence, substandard housing, contaminated water, unemployment, and abject poverty. This must end.
Socialists demand an immediate, robust and well-funded response to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, along with a long-term, concerted, federal effort at resolving the dire conditions in which Canada’s First Nations continue to subsist. We demand that the mineral and other wealth of aboriginal lands be transferred out of the hands of multinational corporations and into the control of the First Nations’ communities on those lands.
> The article above was written by Eric Kupka.