OTTAWA - Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence says her community appreciates the federal government's decision to send more modular homes to the isolated Northern Ontario reserve. But she insists she will not co-operate with a third-party manager appointed by the Harper government to review the band's finances.
Her comments followed a statement by John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, who said on Sunday that Ottawa has purchased an additional seven homes on top of the 15 previously announced, to help the community deal with a housing crisis.
The minister's statement, however, stated matter-of-factly that "Chief Spence has acknowledged the necessity of working with our government, the third-party management team, and Emergency Management Ontario to get help to the residents of Attawapiskat."
"This statement is completely false and untrue and the minister has been misinformed," Spence said in a stern statement issued late Sunday.
Spence said she got a call from Duncan's aid on Sunday morning informing her of the minister's expected announcement.
"I informed the aide that third-party management is not to be part of the announcement. I requested that a copy of the release be emailed to me to verify our conversation," Spence said.
A call from a reporter asking her to comment on Duncan's statement arrived before the email she had requested from the minister's office.
"I appreciate and my members appreciate the assistance being provided for renovations, trailers and expertise," wrote Spence.
"I will not accept our First Nation to operate under third-party management, nor will I pay for them out of our band support allocation."
Ottawa's latest offer also included renovations to the community's healing centre so it could temporarily house vulnerable residents until the new homes arrive.
An official with the minister's office said they hoped winter roads would quickly freeze so that the shipment of the pre-assembled homes can start sometime in January.
Duncan also said wood stoves, composting toilets, plastic sheeting and other supplies were flown into the isolated Northern Ontario community Saturday.
"Our government is working to ensure the people of Attawapiskat have access to safe and warm shelter for the coming months," he said.
NDP critic Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the native community on the coast of James Bay, said the critical issue is who will wind up footing the bill.
"If the government is covering the cost then the community can start dealing with the other massive infrastructure problems, but if the community ends up paying for it through the third party manager, then they will not be any further ahead," he said.
Angus said he is hopeful that government's most recent concession can be the beginning of bringing relief to the impoverished community of about 1,800.
Duncan's press secretary, Moira Wolstenholme, said in an interview that the homes would be paid by Ottawa from new funds. However, the government has told the third-party manager to put any surpluses he finds in the band's housing budget toward the homes.
The plight of the James Bay community is only the highest profile of dozens of First Nations communities across Canada dealing with chronic overcrowding, poor health, poverty and a perpetual lack of decent housing.
The conflict between Attawapiskat and Ottawa comes at a crucial time in First Nations-government relations. Harper and the top First Nations chiefs are meeting at a unique summit at the end of January in an attempt to "reset" the relationship.
Both sides want to end the cycle of dependence and to create the conditions for more autonomous First Nations communities. But so far, no clear plan has emerged from either side, and they continue to fight old battles over money and decision-making power.
Spence said Sunday she was willing to continue negotiating with the government.
"Let us proceed with your (Duncan's) invitation to meet, so that we may discuss and arrive at a compromise," she said.