Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence met with Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) John Duncan on December 5 in the wake of a federal takeover of the First Nation’s finances after a public outcry about housing conditions on the northern Ontario reserve. Then she kicked out the third-party auditor that the government had chosen to study the community's finances.
"We’re not going to take it no more,” she said to a standing ovation at the Special Chiefs Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) taking place this week in Ottawa, according to CBC News.
“Our grandfathers signed the treaty to build up a relationship and build up a nation together,” she said, CBC News reported. “We must tell the government, this is our land, this is our life.… We need to say, enough is enough. Respect the treaty and honour the treaty as we did.… And I’m asking the chiefs to tell the government that what was done to Attawapiskat First Nation … we’re not going to take it no more.”
She said that her community’s leaders had done what they were supposed to do but that the crisis was long-running and involved more than simply financial management. She emphasized that the housing crisis, which is posing serious health risks, must be addressed before any financial aspects.
The government, for its part, wants to know where the $90 million it purports to have given the First Nation since 2006 has gone, and why it has not been manifested in decent housing.
The 1,800-member community’s problems came to public light in November when their local Member of Parliament, Charlie Angus of the New Democratic Party, published a piece on the Huffington Post, “What If They Declared An Emergency And No One Came?” He examined the fact that a month after Chief Theresa Spence had done just that and asked for evacuation, there had been no answer from the government.
“This is Canada’s Haiti except it’s minus-20 right now,” NDP Rep Charlie Angus told the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) last week. (That's minus-4 Fahrenheit.)
The housing crisis in Attawapiskat, northern Ontario, has gripped Canada’s sensibilities and ignited furious public debate. How could this be allowed to happen in one of the most developed nations of the world? On the other side of it, where has Canadian taxpayer money gone? With millions supposedly doled out to the First Nation, how could its people be living in such squalor?
Angus had a video and a platform, and the media and public officials had no choice but to react, especially after the Canadian Red Cross stepped in. Now the story has gripped the nation.
First on the scene this time was the Red Cross, which flew in supplies such as heaters, blankets and more tents. Canadian government authorities soon followed.
Then the federal government did the very thing that Atleo rails against when talking about the ills of the Indian Act: Implying that Attawapiskat cannot manage its own funds, AAND put the finances of the troubled reserve under third-party control on November 30, CBC News and other outlets reported. In question is what has happened to the $90 million that Attawapiskat has received since 2006, according to the government, including $4.3 million for on-reserve housing. The government also ordered an independent audit of the reserve's finances.
But that is the antithesis of what's needed, say Atleo, Spence and other First Nation leaders. Attawapiskat is not alone in its misery. Numerous First Nations across Canada are in similar straits. In fact, Atleo told Canadian newscaster Peter Mansbridge last weekend, 100 of the 600 First Nations in what is today known as Canada face conditions akin to those in Attawapiskat. He said this should be a "moment of reckoning" for First Nations and the government.