OTTAWA - The housing crisis in Attawapiskat has now turned into a full-blown political crisis.
Attawapiskat band councillors kicked out a federal appointee in charge of overseeing the troubled band's finances on Monday when he showed up in the remote Northern Ontario reserve.
But federal officials say the appointee is still in charge of the money, and will continue to control the band's financing even if he is not allowed into the community.
"The third-party manager, Jacques Marion, wished to respect the volatile situation and is currently not in the community," said Michelle Yao, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
"He remains in full control of funding from Aboriginal Affairs to the community and is hoping to work with the community to address urgent needs," Yao said in an email.
Grand Chief Stan Louttit confirmed the move, saying Chief Theresa Spence and her council have made their stance clear: they see Ottawa's decision to appoint a third-party manager as a political move meant to silence their cry for help.
"It is incredible that the Harper government's decision is that, instead of offering aid and assistance to Canada's first peoples, their solution is to blame the victim and that the community is guilty and deserving of their fate," Spence and her band council said in a statement last week.
That sentiment was echoed by many a chief in Ottawa on Monday in preparation for a few days of annual meetings with the Assembly of First Nations.
The community of 2,000 declared a state of emergency at the end of October after a severe housing shortage forced at least two dozen families to live in temporary shelters, some without insulation or plumbing.
The federal response has been two-fold. It advanced half a million dollars to speed up renovations on housing to prepare better shelter in time for the onset of winter; and last week it told the band that it was putting its finances under the control of a third party, as well as undertaking another audit of the band's spending.
"It is extremely worrying that the chief and council are not open to outside assistance," Duncan's spokeswoman said. "Our government's priority is to ensure that residents of Attawapiskat have access to safe, warm and dry shelter."
Duncan met with both Spence and Louttit in Ottawa late Monday afternoon. The native leaders are in town this week for meetings with the Assembly of First Nations.
He urged them, publicly and privately, to co-operate with Ottawa's "plan of action" and with the third-party manager, for the sake of the people of Attawapiskat.
But the appointment of a third-party manager has been widely denounced by First Nations groups as well as the Official Opposition.
A third-party manager is usually named to reserves where there are irregularities in the handling of government funds. Even before that move, Attawapiskat had to produce regular, thorough and public audits to meet Ottawa's demands on accountability.
But First Nations leaders say the housing crisis and widespread poverty and lack of good health on the Attawapiskat reserve are commonplace on remote reserves and have little to do with mis-spending. Rather, they say those problems are a sign that Ottawa's top-down approach to managing and funding reserves is antiquated and dysfunctional.