Attawapiskat Residents Want Spence's Help At Home

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THERESA SPENCE ATTAWAPISKAT
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence takes part in a celebration to end her hunger strike in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 after being released from hospital following an overnight stay. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick | CP

From declaring a housing emergency last year, to a hunger protest in Ottawa, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has fought very publicly with the federal government — but some say she also needs to deal with issues back at home.

The hunger strike put the problems of Attawapiskat back in the national headlines, and near the end of Spence's hunger strike, the federal government released an unflattering audit that again had people questioning the reserve's financial management.

By the end, Attawapiskat's band council wanted Spence to call it quits, which she did — after aboriginal leaders and opposition politcians signed a declaration to fight for a number of issues, along with a better relationship with the federal government.

'Transparency issues'

Some people from Attawapiskat travelled with Spence to Ottawa to support her — and others even built a teepee in front of the band office like the one Spence was staying in on Victoria Island.

But being back in the national spotlight was frustrating for some Attawapiskat residents because they say more than the federal government is to blame for some of the problems in the community.

Mike Koostachin, a community member who recently moved to nearby Fort Albany, said he was frustrated with questionable hiring and management at the band office.

“There's transparency issues,” Koostachin said. “Accountability … all stuff to run a local government. You don't see it.”

Koostachin has since found work in Fort Albany, where he has opened a coffee shop.

Jackie Hookimaw-Witt said she will also call on Spence to work on internal issues. She said many in Attawapiskat are afraid to speak up because the band office has so much control over housing and jobs.

Hookimaw-Witt has a PhD, but said she is planning to leave because she has not be able to find work.

“She is the chief. She has to deal with these matters. She is not holy,” Hookimaw-Witt said.

“If there's outstanding issues, she needs to follow up from her administration to say what is going on.”

A notice in the band office said Spence will return to work this week, after making a medically supervised transition back to solid foods.

'Has to be confronted'

While driving down a snowy street in Attawapiskat, Hookimaw-Witt pointed out the home where her elderly parents used to live.

“It's still sitting there lonely, it's boarded up,” she said.

A sewer backup a few years ago forced them out, but the band never paid for repairs. Housing is in such short supply that the reserve declared a state of emergency last year.

“That's where you see how much is wrong in the community,” Hookimaw-Witt said.

“She knows how to take on the Prime Minister. Surely she can have that courage … to say, ‘listen, [we] can't have this anymore’.”

Hookimaw-Witt added many in Attawapiskat are afraid to speak up because band officials decide where people live and, sometimes, whether they get a job.

“The way they are operating … it's not right sometimes,” Koostachin said. “That has to be confronted. That's why we just want answers.”

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