ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. - Liberal Leader Bob Rae is accusing the Conservatives and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of showing a "lack of respect" toward the troubled First Nations community of Attawapiskat.
On Saturday, as he wrapped up a visit to see the community's housing crisis first-hand, Rae chided Harper — who has long claimed to have a soft spot for northern Canada — for not travelling to the region himself.
“Where there are real people living, and living in really difficult conditions, the prime minister has nothing to say — he’s not there,” Rae said in a telephone interview.
“There’s a great concern about the lack of respect that’s been shown to people here. You show respect by coming, not by insisting that people come to see you.”
Harper's regular forays to remote northern communities since he took office have carried a strong emphasis on issues like defence and sovereignty, but rarely any evidence that the prime minister or the government has forged much of a relationship with the people who live there, Rae said.
“I don’t think he has a great deal of credibility with the people who are living here, or the people who are living in a great many other northern communities, because this is not about planes flying by or about defending the north from the Russians," he said.
"This is about defending the north from poverty, from terrible conditions in terms of housing and poor substandard education."
Rae's visit is the second for an opposition leader in as many weeks. NDP Leader Nycole Turmel visited Attawapiskat last month and promptly urged Harper to do the same.
The government responded by appointing a third-party manager to take over the band's financial affairs, infuriating local leaders. Chief Theresa Spence has appealed to the courts for an injunction to oust the third party, who is being paid $1,300 a day from band funds. A ruling is expected Monday or Tuesday.
Emergency supplies continue to pour in — including washing machines, detergent and blankets. However, large families remain crammed into cold, mould-stained shacks with no bathroom or running water. In one case, 20 people are living together in a two-room house.
The federal government has promised 22 new houses and a retrofit of a local healing centre to help ease the crisis.
The government's attempt to "turn the political tables" by trying to put the spotlight on how the band has managed its funds is "disgraceful," said Rae. He blamed the prime minister for cancelling the Kelowna accord, a Liberal initiative designed to improve living conditions for First Nations communities, and for abandoning various investments to aboriginal communities.
"He (Harper) has to wear this thing, he has to take personal responsibility for what’s happened," Rae said.
"I certainly don’t intend to let him off the hook."