11/29/2011 06:34 EST | Updated 01/29/2012 05:12 EST

Attawapiskat: Grand Chief Sees Short-Term Solutions Forming

TIMMINS, Ont. - A solution to some of the most immediate problems in Attawapiskat seems to be taking shape.

Regional Grand Chief Stan Louttit says five families living in tents on the Northern Ontario reserve should be able to move into homes fairly soon — likely before Christmas.

That's because federal funding has allowed the Cree band to start repairing several houses that had been abandoned because they were too run-down.

And if the band comes up with robust and detailed plans for building more homes, Ottawa has agreed to provide up to $2 million extra.

But Louttit says the progress only deals with some of the immediate problems on the reserve, and those problems will return again unless chronic overcrowding, poor construction and poverty are dealt with in a meaningful way.

"This is band-aid stuff," he said in an interview. "It doesn't deal with the overall issue."

The Attawapiskat community near James Bay has been struggling for years to deal with a deep housing shortage, Louttis said.

More and more houses have been abandoned because they are too dilapidated. For a while, families doubled up in the stronger homes. But now, there are not enough quality houses for everyone to live in.

So entire families have moved into tents, or uninsulated shacks, or abandoned construction trailers left behind by miners.

Tired of trying to persuade Aboriginal Affairs officials that Attawapiskat needed special consideration, the band took their complaints public by declaring a state of emergency last month.

Their plight has gradually attracted attention. Federal and provincial officials were in Attawapiskat on Monday to see if they can figure out what went wrong. And now, NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel is on her way to the remote community, as is the Red Cross, the regional grand chief, and extra health professionals.

"The good thing is, everybody knows about it. The government is embarrassed as hell," Louttit said. "We're beginning to see some progress."

Several James Bay communities are experiencing similar trouble, but First Nations leaders have focused on Attawapiskat because conditions there are the worst, Louttit added.

Housing for First Nations crumbles party because families are large and homes are often crowded, says John Beaucage, a former grand chief who advises Ontario on improving aboriginal living.

Homes built on top of permafrost have extra challenges, Beaucage says, because the large families heat up the homes, and then melt the permafrost underneath. So foundations and beams sink and then crack, and mould infestations spread.

The Cree community in Attawapiskat has had years of problems with its buildings. The elementary school had to be shut down in 2000 because of health and safety concerns, and has not yet been replaced with a permanent structure.

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that 80,000 additional homes are needed in First Nations communities. The advocacy organization says almost half of the existing housing stock is substandard, and much of it should be condemned.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken pointedly about needing to find a better route to aboriginal prosperity. But he is focusing fairly narrowly on improving education.

Photo gallery Attawapiskat Emergency See Gallery

Video and photos courtesy of Charlie Angus