12/07/2011 12:26 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Attawapiskat Crisis: Ottawa Offers Evacuation To Troubled Reserve


OTTAWA - The government is prepared to evacuate some residents of a Northern Ontario reserve until better housing can be brought in, the aboriginal affairs minister says.

The other immediate solution to the reserve's housing shortage would be to retrofit a sportsplex and a healing centre as short-term accommodations, John Duncan told Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in a letter sent Wednesday.

Duncan said an assessment of the community suggests 15 modular homes would address the needs of families currently living in shacks and tents.

Duncan said the manager is prepared to buy the homes immediately so they can be delivered as soon as the winter roads open.

Evacuation or the retrofit are two options for the interim, he said.

"I again cannot stress enough the need to work with the third party manager, our government and our partners to ensure the health and safety of the community," Duncan wrote.

"I believe the two options above are fair and reasonable offers."

Ottawa removed the band's power over its own finances last week. But on Monday band members told the government-appointed manager to leave the reserve.

Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit said he was analyzing the letter and reviewing it with Attawapiskat First Nation.

"I cannot speak on the issue prior to the review by community leadership," he said.

It remains up to the band council to accept or reject the offered solutions. Spence was not immediately available for comment.

In the letter, Duncan asked to meet with her to discuss the choices. The two had met earlier this week.

Attawapiskat's current financial straits and housing crisis are linked to a 2009 sewage backup which forced families out of their homes.

The government wouldn't pay to evacuate them, so the band did it themselves, throwing them into debt. The homes have still not been repaired.

In the letter, Duncan also said wood stoves, compost toilets and cots were on their way into the community of about 2,000 people near James Bay. He also offered additional health-care resources.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said he'd leave it up to the community to decide on whether the government's offer meets their needs.

But he said he was hopeful the minister is willing to work with them.

"We have been asking for a plan for nearly a month," said Angus, whose riding is home to the reserve.

"I am hoping that the minister and the community can get down to the work of responding to the people in crisis in a less confrontational manner.

"We have people in need. It's incumbent upon everyone to work together to get Attawapiskat back on its feet."

Earlier Wednesday, the NDP asked the government to send in the military.

NDP Leader Nycole Turmel says getting winter supplies to Attawapiskat won't be easy, and military support is needed, given the extreme weather and lack of a road into the reserve.

"Moving supplies into this community to alleviate the housing crisis will require an extraordinary level of co-ordination," Turmel wrote in a letter Wednesday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Given the extreme weather conditions and the fact that the winter road will not be ready for nearly two months, the community is seeking co-ordinated logistical help. For this reason, they have asked me to convey that they are asking for military support to help in the response."

Turmel says the crisis is no different from others that Canada has faced where the military was sent in.

"Our military has played an incredible role at times of other humanitarian crises in Canada. I am sure that you will agree that the conditions facing people in Attawapiskat are dire and likely to get worse as the winter sets in," Turmel said in her letter to Harper.

"I am asking you today to act immediately and target resources, including military resources as requested by the community, towards building adequate housing in Attawapiskat."

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