07/16/2012 03:21 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Attawapiskat: Poverty And Politics Still Plaguing Ontario Reserve


OTTAWA - The last time the chiefs of First Nations gathered for a national strategy session, the housing crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., cast a dark shadow that no one could ignore.

Outraged resolutions at the chiefs meeting in Ottawa last year were prompted by shivering families in the northern James Bay community living in uninsulated, wood-frame tents, bracing for a harsh winter — even as the federal government removed the band council's financial powers and placed them under third-party management.

Seven months later, the chiefs are meeting again — this time for the election of their national chief and to decide on their policy agenda for the coming months.

The people of Attawapiskat are no longer living in tents. New mobile homes provided by the federal government have been set up and serviced. The band has regained control over its finances. They've even broken ground on a new school.

At the political level, the resolutions and the pre-campaign speeches no longer dwell on the northern Ontario reserve, but the underlying issues are the same as ever.

Dozens of Attawapiskat residents are still living in squalid conditions, squeezed together into a trailer complex that was meant to be temporary but now seems permanent, says Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit.

A long-awaited plan for long-term housing is still a work in progress, with discussions shrouded in mutual mistrust between Ottawa and the First Nation.

The band's finances are still under scrutiny. And while about 100 Attawapiskat members as well as several new businesses are making decent money from the nearby Victor diamond mine, the community is still impoverished.

"Things have not settled down yet," said Louttit in an interview. "The big problem now is the 90 people in those trailers."

The large industrial trailers look like dormitories, crammed with small apartments that rely on common bathrooms and kitchens. Noise and petty crime are constant concerns.

"It's no place for families or children to live. There's no peace of mind," said Louttit.

Last fall, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared an emergency in her Cree community, asking for extra help to house families that had no secure shelter for the winter.

In the midst of a media storm detailing the very public confrontation between Spence and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, the federal government funded the retrofitting of temporary shelter and paid for 22 new mobile homes.

"Since November 2011, over $3 million has been invested in providing emergency shelter for the First Nation," said Duncan's spokesman, Jason MacDonald.

At the same time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the band of mismanaging its money, noting that it had received $90 million in government funding between 2006 and 2011. He ordered a full audit and imposed a third-party manager to control the band's finances.

The audit has been completed, but band leaders still need to give their feedback before any public discussion takes place on its findings, a spokesman for Duncan said.

The long-term housing plan is just a few weeks away from completion, Louttit added. He doubts the plan will ever get the federal funding it requires. For its part, the federal government complains that the chief and council have been dragging their heels in completing the plan.

"While the First Nation is responsible for managing its housing needs and for putting its housing strategy together, we have made repeated offers to assist them in the development of that strategy," said MacDonald, Duncan's spokesman.

"This is a matter that will require a continuing commitment on the part of chief and council to work."

But Louttit, like many other native leaders, says he is tired of dealing with the federal government to negotiate funding that never seems sufficient.

For him, a more sustainable answer to the social problems plaguing many a remote reserve lies in finding new ways to share the wealth that flows from natural resources.

"People used to be really, really patient, waiting for the government. They're running out of patience," Louttit said.

Indeed, chiefs speak frequently about resource revenue sharing, and it will be a common theme for the eight candidates vying for the national chief position at the Assembly of First Nations meetings this week.

Louttit sees some good ideas, especially when incumbent Shawn Atleo talks about First Nations taking equity stakes in resource projects.

But Louttit wants to see more than talk. He wants governments and companies taking action, and he wants to see the AFN take stronger measures to back local First Nations negotiations.

"Unless there is some real revenue sharing with resource developers and government in our territory, Attawapiskat is going to continue," he said. "Our economy and our wealth and our getting out of poverty is right in our backyard, and we need to be part of that process.

Big business leaders seem to be onside, at least in principle. In a study prepared for premiers meeting later this month, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives said that an effective national strategy for energy requires the "true partnership" of aboriginal peoples who live near the natural resources.

Harper, too, has spoken about the need for First Nations to be self-sufficient and contribute to the national economy.

But those words can't mean that corporations or governments hand First Nations ready-made agreements on how to divvy up the spoils, said Louttit.

"We need to be in the driver's seat. We can't be dictated to," he said. "Otherwise, they're going to get rich, and we're going to remain in poverty, just like Attawapiskat."

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