OTTAWA - A year after the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat jarred the country's conscience with its deplorable housing conditions, the reserve next door has only narrowly averted a similar crisis.
Kashechewan First Nation declared a state of emergency last week because it was running out of fuel and because 21 houses were not fit to face winter.
The federal government stepped in with help, just in the nick of time.
But fuel shortages are becoming more common among remote northern Ontario communities right now, said Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a regional advocacy network.
That's because the ice road used to truck in a year's supply of diesel last winter did not last as long as usual.
"Everybody is running out now. We're looking at a two-month gap" until this winter's ice road is solid enough to truck in fresh supplies, Fiddler said in an interview.
In Kashechewan, extra fuel supplies were supposed to come in by barge, but bad weather and demands from other communities meant the Cree community near James Bay didn't receive enough.
Kashechewan's chief and council were poised late last month to shut down the band office, two schools, the power generation centre, the health clinic and the fire hall because the buildings were not heated and could no longer operate safely.
"We are without fuel to operate our organizations, heat them, and we are obligated to maintain employee safety and health standards for our employees," the Cree community's chief, Derek Stephen, said in a Nov. 23 declaration of emergency obtained by The Canadian Press.
Plus, 21 homes had also become uninhabitable, he said in a second declaration.
The basements of the homes had been flooded last spring and their electric furnaces destroyed. Now, with the onset of winter, families were freezing.
"Due to lack of proper heating for homes for families that have elderly, disabled and small children, we are left with no choice but to declare a state of emergency," the chief stated.
A declaration of emergency by a First Nation triggers action by Emergency Management Ontario, which is in turn reimbursed and supported by Aboriginal Affairs in Ottawa.
According to the declarations, the Cree community had asked Ottawa for help beforehand, but to no avail.
"During a conference call with (Aboriginal Affairs) we had requested fuel to be flown into the community for our medical facility, administrative buildings and our schools — all of which were denied, " the first declaration said.
Similarly, the second statement on housing said requests for assistance were rejected. As a result, temporary fixes for the furnaces damaged in last spring's flooding broke down, leaving families without heat.
According to the band's NDP MP, Charlie Angus, it wasn't until the band declared an emergency and he exchanged words with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan that federal help kicked in.
But a spokesman for Duncan said Aboriginal Affairs had arranged for emergency fuel delivery a week before the declaration, and allowed for extra funding for home building supplies the day after the declaration.
The department freed up funding to cover the cost of flying in fuel and supplying the community with materials to get the furnaces up and running again, said spokesman, Jan O'Driscoll.
"Given the urgent nature of the situation, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) has released funds to cover the incremental cost of fuel delivery by air to address health and safety needs of the community and has released a $700,000 emergency cheque towards building supplies for renovations to 21 housing units," O'Driscoll said in an email.
"Departmental officials continue to work closely with the First Nation to ensure that the community has a sufficient supply of fuel."
Aboriginal Affairs has released $24,397 so far for the fuel supply, O'Driscoll added.
Crisis averted, said the NDP's Angus, but he is upset that the community had to come so close to the brink to get Ottawa's attention.
A year after Minister Duncan's reputation took a beating over the Attawapiskat housing crisis and the federal government's treatment of First Nations received global scrutiny, "it's symbolic that no real lessons have been learned," Angus said in an interview.
Lack of adequate housing remains an urgent problem on reserves across the country. And isolated communities frequently confront problems linked to their dependence on diesel fuel for power — such as leaks, contamination, fuel shortages, and high prices, Angus said.
Reserves in his riding alone have declared 13 emergencies in just seven years, most of them related to poor infrastructure.
"We're always putting Band-aids on septic wounds," he said. "A year after Attawapiskat, we really need to say: what is the lesson from all of this?"