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Flooding, sewer backup prompt hospital evacuation in Attawapiskat First Nation

ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. - Flooding and sewer backups have plunged two northern Ontario First Nations into a state of emergency, triggering the evacuation of a hospital and the shutdown of schools, the region's member of parliament said Tuesday.

Heavy snowfall followed by a rapid melt have overwhelmed "sub-standard" infrastructure in the Attawapiskat and Kashechewan reserves, both on the shore of the James Bay, NDP MP Charlie Angus said.

Rising sewage forced Attawapiskat to evacuate its only hospital and emergency officials said patients have been moved to facilities off-reserve as a precaution.

"My big concern is that it's not good enough to simply pump sewage out of a hospital clinic," Angus said. "It needs to be completely sterilized and that's going to be a serious issue."

The troubled reserve of roughly 1,800 is best known for the housing crisis that prompted a state of emergency in the winter of 2011 and set off lingering tensions with the federal government.

Meanwhile, both communities have closed their schools, Angus said.

"It would be serious anywhere but in these communities, where you have sometimes five, 10 or 15 people in a two-bedroom house, the effects can be catastrophic," he said in a phone interview.

The remote reserves have a history of spring-time flooding, but the waters rose early this year, while local rivers were still frozen.

Emergency Management Ontario warned conditions could worsen when the ice breaks in coming days.

But Angus said nature isn't the only one to blame for the communities' plight.

"The reality is, it's sub-standard sewage and infrastructure, so the list stations in both communities just couldn't keep up and it was backing up raw sewage in people's homes, into the hospital, into the teachers' residences," he said.

"Without a hospital, with the fact that the schools are shut down, this is a community that needs outside help and it needs a plan," he said.

Federal plans to move Kashechewan off the flood plain fell through several years ago, while "finger-pointing" over Attawapiskat's funding has stalled much-needed investments in the reserve's infrastructure, Angus said.

The Conservatives have accused Attawapiskat of mismanaging funds and briefly imposed an external manager on the band.

A scathing audit of the band council's spending — commissioned by Ottawa shortly after the housing crisis began — was released in January, a move some viewed as a cynical public relations ploy by the government.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said Tuesday that Ottawa has invested millions in Attawapiskat in recent years, including funds sent there and to five other Ontario First Nations this year to prepare for possible flooding.

"While (Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence) has indicated she will not be available to speak with departmental officials about the situation in her community until the end of the week, we have reached out to the deputy chief and are prepared to offer whatever assistance is required to ensure the health and safety of the community," Andrea Richer said in an email.

She said ministry officials are heading to Attawapiskat to "evaluate the immediate needs of the community."

Officials have also been in contact with Kashechewan's chief to determine what help is needed, Richer said.

Health Canada said it sent an environmental health officer to Attawapiskat to conduct water testing and inspect homes affected by flooding.

Angus said if damaged homes aren't repaired quickly, it could resurrect the housing troubles that plagued Attawapiskat two years ago.

"People didn't just come to live in unheated sheds in Attawapiskat (during the crisis). It was because their homes were damaged from the sewage... and a whole residential subdivision was left uninhabitable," he said.

Another nearby First Nation, Neshkantaga, remained under a state of emergency Tuesday following a string of suicides.

_ By Paola Loriggio in Toronto.

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