OTTAWA - The last time the chiefs of First Nations gathered for a national strategy session, the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., cast a dark shadow that no one could ignore.
Outraged resolutions at the chiefs meeting in Ottawa last year were prompted by shivering families in the northern James Bay community living in uninsulated, wood-frame tents, bracing for a harsh winter — even as the federal government removed the band council's financial powers and placed them under third-party management.
Seven months later, the chiefs are meeting again — this time for the election of their national chief and to decide on their policy agenda for the coming months.
The people of Attawapiskat are no longer living in tents. New mobile homes provided by the federal government have been set up and serviced. The band has regained control over its finances. They've even broken ground on a new school.
At the political level, the resolutions and the pre-campaign speeches no longer dwell on the northern Ontario reserve, but the underlying issues are the same as ever.
Dozens of Attawapiskat residents are still living in squalid conditions, squeezed together into a trailer complex that was meant to be temporary but now seems permanent, says Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit.
A long-awaited plan for long-term housing is still a work in progress, with discussions shrouded in mutual mistrust between Ottawa and the First Nation.
The band's finances are still under scrutiny. And while about 100 Attawapiskat members as well as several new businesses are making decent money from the nearby Victor diamond mine, the community is still impoverished.
"Things have not settled down yet," said Louttit in an interview. "The big problem now is the 90 people in those trailers."
The large industrial trailers look like dormitories, crammed with small apartments that rely on common bathrooms and kitchens. Noise and petty crime are constant concerns.
"It's no place for families or children to live. There's no peace of mind," said Louttit.
Last fall, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared an emergency in her Cree community, asking for extra help to house families that had no secure shelter for the winter.
In the midst of a media storm detailing the very public confrontation between Spence and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, the federal government funded the retrofitting of temporary shelter and paid for 22 new mobile homes.
"Since November 2011, over $3 million has been invested in providing emergency shelter for the First Nation," said Duncan's spokesman, Jason MacDonald.
At the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the band of mismanaging its money, noting that it had received $90 million in government funding between 2006 and 2011. He ordered a full audit and imposed a third-party manager to control the band's finances.
The audit has been completed, but band leaders still need to give their feedback before any public discussion takes place on its findings, a spokesman for Duncan said.
The long-term housing plan is just a few weeks away from completion, Louttit added. He doubts the plan will ever get the federal funding it requires. For its part, the federal government complains that the chief and council have been dragging their heels in completing the plan.
"While the First Nation is responsible for managing its housing needs and for putting its housing strategy together, we have made repeated offers to assist them in the development of that strategy," said MacDonald, Duncan's spokesman.
"This is a matter that will require a continuing commitment on the part of chief and council to work."
But Louttit, like many other native leaders, says he is tired of dealing with the federal government to negotiate funding that never seems sufficient.
For him, a more sustainable answer to the social problems plaguing many a remote reserve lies in finding new ways to share the wealth that flows from natural resources.
"People used to be really, really patient, waiting for the government. They're running out of patience," Louttit said.
Indeed, chiefs speak frequently about resource revenue sharing, and it will be a common theme for the eight candidates vying for the national chief position at the Assembly of First Nations meetings this week.
Louttit sees some good ideas, especially when incumbent Shawn Atleo talks about First Nations taking equity stakes in resource projects.
But Louttit wants to see more than talk. He wants governments and companies taking action, and he wants to see the AFN take stronger measures to back local First Nations negotiations.
"Unless there is some real revenue sharing with resource developers and government in our territory, Attawapiskat is going to continue," he said. "Our economy and our wealth and our getting out of poverty is right in our backyard, and we need to be part of that process.
Big business leaders seem to be onside, at least in principle. In a study prepared for premiers meeting later this month, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives said that an effective national strategy for energy requires the "true partnership" of aboriginal peoples who live near the natural resources.
Harper, too, has spoken about the need for First Nations to be self-sufficient and contribute to the national economy.
But those words can't mean that corporations or governments hand First Nations ready-made agreements on how to divvy up the spoils, said Louttit.
"We need to be in the driver's seat. We can't be dictated to," he said. "Otherwise, they're going to get rich, and we're going to remain in poverty, just like Attawapiskat."
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)