12/03/2011 12:20 EST | Updated 02/02/2012 05:12 EST

Feds Aware Of Attawapiskat Crisis For Years


The federal department responsible for First Nations has known about the worsening living conditions at Attawapiskat for years, says former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Strahl tells host Evan Solomon the crisis at Attawapiskat "has been a slow moving train-wreck for a long time."

However, the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan said this week that officials in his department were unaware of Attawapiskat's housing problems until Oct. 28, despite having visited the community several times in the past year.

But Strahl, who retired from politics earlier this year, paints a different picture.

"It was not good when I was there, and I don't think it's appreciably, or any better now. That was well known, everybody knew it was a very difficult community for a bunch of reasons."

Attawapiskat "was always a problem," said Strahl.

The federal government put the community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario under third-party management, and ordered an audit to find out how federal funds have been spent in the commmunity of about 1,800.

The government says it has given Attawapiskat roughly $90 million since 2006. However, Strahl says only $4.3 million has been spent on housing since then.

"Sad to say that in some of these communities, because some of the other needs are equal or greater than housing, that's how difficult it is, and arguably every one of them is a crisis," said Strahl.

3rd-party management 'reasonable and responsible'

Greg Rickford, Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, told The House the government's decision earlier in the week to place the Attawapiskat First Nations under third-party management is the "most reasonable and responsible way to move forward."

"We have a legal basis for proceeding with third-party management given the pressing health and safety issues," he said. "Over the medium term, any funds from the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development will necessarily involve our role in any final decisions with respect to those resources."

Band Chief Theresa Spence has objected to what she says is the government's focus on money and blaming band members for living conditions.

"I guess as First Nations, when we do ask for assistance and make a lot of noise, we get penalized for it, so to put us in third-party [management] while we're in crisis, is a very shameful disgrace from the government," she told CBC's Tom Parry.

"They should be focusing on the crisis that we're going through, not blaming anybody. I'm very disappointed and discouraged and I'm sure the other First Nations are going to be discouraged. If they have problems in their communities and if they ask assistance and you have to go to the media, they're going to get penalized like we are right now," Spence said.

Rickford said neither side should be assigning blame.

"I think we both have a shared desire and a shared responsibility to work through this," he said.