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Open Letter to UN: Come See Attawapiskat for Yourself

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James Anaya
Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples
James E. Rogers College of Law
1201 E. Speedway Blvd
Tucson, Arizona USA 85721-0176

Dear Mr. Anaya,
At the outset, let me thank you for the Dec. 20, 2011 UN Statement on Attawapiskat. As the member of Parliament who represents the community of Attawapiskat in Canada's Parliament, I can attest that the horrific conditions that are "alleged" in your statement are indeed real. We have families living in tents, unheated cabins and shacks that have no access to running water or plumbing. In late November, I met one family living without access to firewood or proper bedding for their poorly constructed shack. This was as temperatures were plunging below -20 Celsius.

This situation did not just happen. It is the result of years of chronic under funding and systemic negligence on the part of the federal government. As much as the Conservative government has tried to blame local leaders, the reality is, Attawapiskat represents the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of isolated, impoverished First Nation communities across Canada facing similar situations.

When I was elected to represent the James Bay region in 2004, I was horrified by the conditions I encountered. During my first visit to the James Bay community of Kashechewan First Nation, a woman stopped me on the mud-strewn street and asked me how I would feel if I had to raise my children in a prisoner of war camp. Looking about me at the clutter of shanty shacks ringed in by an imposing dirt wall dike, I understood exactly what she meant.

Kashechewan First Nation was subject to two emergency evacuations of the entire population in a single year, 2005-06. The first evacuation was the result of a major E. coli outbreak in the water system. Concerns about substandard water protection had been flagged with government officials for years but no action had been taken. In fact, a federal standard for safe drinking water on reserves did not even exist.

When the federal Health Canada department was informed in late 2005 that medical officials were warning of a major health threat from E. coli in the water, government officials responded lackadaisically by telling residents to simply boil their drinking water.

This response was completely at odds with the response provincial government officials had taken to a similar E. coli outbreak in the non-Native community of Walkerton, Ontario. In this latter case, government officials moved in quickly and a massive public inquiry was undertaken to ensure that such a situation would never happen again. Yet when E. coli was found on a northern First Nation reserve, the initial response was to wait the issue out and hope that it would go away.

I have seen similar responses time and time again to the health and safety concerns faced by Aboriginal people on northern reserves. For example, Attawapiskat has been subject to three states of emergency in the past three years. Two of those states of emergency were simply ignored by the federal government.

In March 2009, the federal government tore down the badly contaminated J.R. Nakogee Grade School. This site had been identified in government documents [1] as a class one threat to human health. The school grounds are contaminated with over 100,000 litres of diesel fuel and the children have been exposed to high levels of cancer causing contaminants such as benzene And yet, despite federal promises to have medical doctors onsite (no doctors were present), the demolition was conducted as children were going to school in the nearby makeshift portables. The resulting contamination forced classes to be shut for three weeks. Children were exposed to contaminants and dust that caused people to throw up and become sick in classrooms.[2]

Government officials denied any problems or any risk to any resident as a result of these levels of contamination. And yet, the benzene levels were so high that children were falling unconscious from the fumes. As a former school board trustee in the provincial school system, I can state that if children were exposed to such conditions in a non-Native community, charges would be laid and an investigation undertaken. No steps were taken by the federal government even though the community was forced to shut the school for over three weeks.

In the summer of 2009, a second state of emergency was declared after sewage back up left nearly 100 people homeless. This was the second sewage flood in four years. As a result of the 2009, sewage failure, the community appealed to Indian Affairs for help because they had no place to house the homeless. The federal government refused to recognize the validity of the state of emergency. As a result, the Band was forced to conduct their own evacuation where families were sent hundreds of kilometers south to hotels while they attempted to remediate the damage.

The Band was left with a massive debt load from this evacuation. As well, many of the homeless in today's crisis were made homeless as a result of the sewage failures in the community.

Overall, health conditions for families are poor. There are as many as 20 people living in two or three bedroom houses. Many of the houses of covered in black mould. Children suffer from numerous health problems. For example, in April 2009 I interviewed a woman who described horrific health effects as a result of the living conditions in the community:

"My children have rashes all over their bodies. My nine-year-old has dots all over him that looks like chicken pox. My daughter has a rash under her armpits that smell like rotten meat because her arms are all torn up. My eight year-old son wakes up in the morning with bleeding nose. When he wakes up in the morning his face is all bloody. I can't take the blood stain out of the pillows and he doesn't like to use a pillow that is covered in blood."[3]

The children in this community have gone 12 years without a grade school. Over 400 students are being educated in makeshift portables. Three Aboriginal Affairs Ministers have promised to build a school for the children. And yet, it took a national campaign by Attawapiskat children to draw attention to the systemic under funding of First Nation students on reserve.

In 2008, three Attawapiskat youth wrote to the United Nations to inform them that they would challenge Canada at the upcoming review of the Rights of the Child Convention. The leader of this campaign was 13-year-old Shannen Koostachin who was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. This is the message she gave to school students from across Canada:

"I would like to talk to you what it is like to be a child who grows up never seeing a real school. I want to tell you what it is like to never have the chance to feel excited about being educated. It's hard to feel pride when your classrooms are cold, and the mice run over our lunches. You know that kids in other communities have proper schools. So you begin to feel as if you are a child who doesn't count for anything. That's why some of our students begin to give up in grade 4 and grade 5. They just stop going to school. Imagine that. Imagine a child who feels they have no future even at that young age. But I want to also tell you about the determination in our community to build a better world. "We are not going to give up." We want our younger brothers and sisters to go to school thinking that school is a time for hopes and dreams of the future. Every kid deserves this".[4]

Shannen did not live long enough to carry out her promise to go to Geneva on behalf of the children of Attawapiskat (she died in a tragic car accident last year). But this February, a group of Aboriginal youth will carry on Shannen's dream and challenge Canada at the upcoming review of the Rights of the Child Convention. They will be led by 16-year-old Chelsea Edwards from Attawapiskat First Nation.

The background of this fight in Attawapiskat is important for you to understand so that you might put the present issue in context. When the issue of the crisis in Attawapiskat became national news, the government responded by blaming the community for supposed mismanagement of funds.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said publicly that if there was anything his department could be accused of, it was being "too patient" with the community. His government effectively deposed the Band leadership by imposing an outside "manager" to take control of their finances. While Red Cross relief workers were hitting the ground in Attawapiskat to deliver emergency aid, the federal government sent in a financial controller to take control of the Band. This was widely and rightly interpreted as punishment for the community speaking out.

We are now two months into the crisis. Temperatures have dropped well below -20 Celsius. If it had not been for the work of the Red Cross, people may have died. And yet, Christmas will come with families still living in tents and sheds. This is completely unacceptable. There is no justification for the slow response in a country as rich as Canada.

I implore you to come to Attawapiskat First Nation and see conditions for yourself. This is a wonderful community that has been slowly ground into the dirt as a result of systemic under funding, discrimination and gross negligence by the Government of Canada.

I look forward to hearing from you and hope we can follow up to ensure that Canada does not continue to fail the First Nation families living in Canada's North.

Sincerely,

Charlie Angus

Member of Parliament

Timmins - James Bay

[1] October 1999 report by Abeneaaki Environmental

[2] Attawapiskat School Contamination, interviews posted on Youtube, April 12, 2009, by MP Charlie Angus.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Statement made at Education is a Human Rights Forum, Toronto, November 2008

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