The federal government has announced the remote James Bay community of Attawapiskat will go under third-party management amid a housing crisis.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, who announced the measures in question period Wednesday, told the House of Commons that "urgent health and safety issues" in the northern Ontario community needed immediate action.
"The Government of Canada has informed the chief that we are placing the community in third-party management to ensure community needs are addressed," Duncan said.
"Part of the manager's role will be to administer my department's funding which is normally managed by the First Nation directly."
The minister has also requested a comprehensive audit to identify how money has been spent in the community and what oversight measures have been taken in the past five years.
The announcement comes about a month after Attawapiskat declared an emergency over a dire housing crisis as winter approached. Many residents are living in uninsulated shacks or construction trailers without heat or running water. On Tuesday, the Canadian Red Cross sent a shipment of aid, consisting mainly of heaters and winter sleeping bags.
On Wednesday, NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the troubled reserve, slammed the government's handling of the crisis, saying their solution is to "blame the community."
"Why is it that when it's a First Nations community in distress this government's response is contempt?" Angus asked the House of Commons.
The NDP had asked for an emergency debate on Attawapiskat in the House of Commons Wednesday, but the request was rejected.
Harper insisted earlier this week that the government has spent some $90 million on Attawapiskat since coming to office.
"That's over $50,000 for every man, woman and child in the community. Obviously we're not very happy that the results do not seem to have been achieved for that, we're concerned about that, we have officials looking into it and taking action," he said Tuesday.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the $90-million figure Harper referred to is a misleading number, as it includes funding for education, water, sewers and housing infrastructure.
"He's doing the same thing that he did yesterday, that is, the investments in health and education are included in the amount of $90 million that he is always referring to today," he said during question period Wednesday.
Other communities also facing difficulties: Rae
Rae called on the government to "take responsibility."
"There are dozens of Attawapiskats right across this country and it's not the only community facing these conditions and these difficulties," he said Wednesday. "The auditor general of Canada herself said, Mr. Speaker, in her last report that the aboriginal people of this country are living in intolerable conditions. It's the government that has to take responsibility for what's happened and not simply continue to blame the victim."
Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel, who visited Attawapiskat on Tuesday, called on Harper to visit the First Nations community and see the "unacceptable" conditions for himself.
"It's appalling and unimaginable and worse than anything you could think of," she said during question period. "People are living in tents, in trailers. They have no heat and any little heat is a fire hazard. They're sleeping on mouldy mattresses."
John Saunders, co-ordinator for the Red Cross, said his focus was the immediate needs of some in the community of about 1,800 people near the shore of James Bay, which declared an emergency over its housing crisis a month ago as winter moved in.
"It's –15, –20, with no heat and a wooden shack; those are pretty urgent needs,” Saunders said.
"We distributed sleeping bags — these are winter-rated sleeping bags — to the first five families identified as the greatest need, and we are proceeding to the other remaining 19 families that are in the various shacks, getting heaters, sleeping bags, winter clothing to them and identifying what their other needs will be."
As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, the Red Cross had received $63,000 in donations for Attawapiskat, Saunders said.
Housing presents the greatest problem in Attawapiskat.
Steve Linklater, his wife and four children have a television and a computer, but live in a one-room canvas shack.
“It gets really cold in the morning,” he said, and the family huddles together at night to stay warm. The Red Cross gave them winter sleeping bags and a heater to ward off the cold, but what Linklater really wants is "a house, a warm house."
He said his family has waited two years for a house and isn’t sure if they will ever get one.
Saunders, who was encountering Attawapiskat for the first time, said he was impressed by the ingenuity of people adapting to the housing crisis. "MacGyver would be proud of these folks."
The CBC's Adrienne Arsenault, reporting from Attawapiskat on Wednesday, said the community's health centre has a board with a list: "These are the people who are without homes; these are the people without plumbing; these are the people without heating; these are the people living in condemned homes."
The Red Cross is going through the list of needs, one by one.
Cellphone service might finally arrive for Attawapiskat on Wednesday, Arsenault said.
"The tower is up, they're waiting for the technicians to figuratively pull the switch. That would make a huge difference to daily life here."
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence said Tuesday she was relieved the Canadian Red Cross had arrived with supplies to help families.
"We're still in crisis at the moment. We are working on the immediate needs right now," she said.
Spence called on government officials to provide adequate housing.
"We need the government, you know, to come and step in and really work on the situation. We need housing immediately and infrastructure to be improved. That is one of the major problems."
When asked about Harper's comments Tuesday that the government would look into the millions it has given Attawapiskat, Spence said, "What will they investigate?… The money we get, 80 per cent goes to education and 20 per cent goes to the services that we need in our community."
Attawapiskat, like many reserves, is suffering an acute housing shortage. Families are doubled up in the small homes that line the handful of streets making up this town. Others have been squeezed out of their residences and had to seek shelter in shacks, teepees, tents or giant construction trailers donated by De Beers, a diamond mine about 80 kilometres from the reserve.
These families lack the basics of life in the North: running water, plumbing, insulation and proper heating.
De Beers makes employing Attawapiskat members a top priority, but only a small proportion of their salaries seems to flow back home to deal with harsh conditions. The miners move away, or find the rules of reserve life too restrictive to put their savings into a housing investment.
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