A year after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a self described hunger strike to pressure the federal government to take aboriginal concerns seriously, documents from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs show a contract to build four housing units in her northern Ontario community is now close to being awarded.
The milestone comes after delays caused by spring floods, a November fire that forced the evacuation of 65 people from a trailer compound and a protracted response by Spence to a federal offer of funding.
The 1,800 residents of Attawapiskat, a First Nation community located 500 kilometres north of Timmins, have been struggling with a housing shortage and substandard living conditions for years, as well as persistent spring flooding.
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Bidding for the $2.2-million contract by four pre-approved contractors to build four semi-detached homes to accommodate eight families by the fall of 2014 closes on Monday.
The contractor who wins the bid will get to decide whether the homes are shipped into the community or built on site from the ground up.
The contract is part of a new five-year $11.5-million housing plan endorsed by Spence and the First Nation's band council under which the federal government has committed to funding 15 projects.
Those projects include the construction of 46 new housing units and the infrastructure around them, as well as the renovation of another 46 units and the trailers in the east-end of the community.
In the meantime, Attawapiskat received $280,000 to retrofit a trailer complex in the hope of extending its life to the end of the five-year housing plan.
"Our government recognizes that housing is fundamental to a good quality of life, which is why we are working with the Attawapiskat band council to find sustainable housing solutions for the community," Bernard Valcourt, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, told CBC News in a written statement on Thursday.
Repeated attempts by CBC News to reach Spence for an interview were unsuccessful.
But reporters caught up with Spence as she took part in an Idle No More rally on Parliament Hill Tuesday and asked her about progress on housing in her community.
"It's always going to be a slow process, because we only work with one government, which is federal. That needs to change, because we need more governments at the table to really talk about the things that need to improve in our community," she said before refusing to answer further questions.
Progress mired in delays
Spence's self-described hunger strike, during which she subsisted on fish broth and medicinal tea, began on Dec. 11, 2012, and quickly drew support from Idle No More protesters. This put pressure on the national organization representing First Nations to get the prime minister to commit to a meeting.
On Jan. 11, after a month of protest and repeated calls for action, Spence did not attend the meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a delegation of First Nations chiefs led by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.
She did, however, go to a meeting with Gov. Gen. David Johnston later that same night before ending her protest on Jan.23.
Documents provided to CBC News last week by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs show Attawapiskat and its partners submitted a draft for a five-year housing plan on Jan. 30, one-week after Spence ended her hunger strike.
Funding for renovations on an ATCO trailer complex were approved on Jan. 3, three weeks before Spence ended her hunger strike, documents from the federal department show.
By May, following the band council's endorsement of the housing plan, the federal government offered Spence up to $2.2 million in funding for the construction of a new multi-unit housing project, with conditions.
But the offer came just as Spence was forced to evacuate 84 residents from wastewater-damaged homes following a state of emergency resulting from another flood from rapidly melting snow within the community.
It wasn't until Aug. 27 that Spence advised the Aboriginal Affairs Department that the community was prepared to move ahead with the project.
Her acceptance of the offer came on the day she was re-elected Attawapiskat chief.
In a letter obtained this week by CBC News and dated Aug. 27, Spence wrote, "the Attawapiskat First Nation appreciates the patience of your department while we co-ordinate the project details to utilize the $2.2 million … for the construction of much-needed residential units to deal with our identified housing backlog."
"Based on the need for this project, and the level of commitment, the First Nation is prepared to move ahead with the project." Spence said in the letter.
Spence outlined how the $2.2 million would be used:
- To build a minimum of four semi-detached homes consisting of three- and four-bedroom units.
- The recipients of these homes will be large families deemed to be high on a priority list.
- The units will be located on the southwest end of the community, near the site of a new school.
The five-year strategy is part of an overall 10-year housing plan drafted by the Attawapiskat Housing Strategy Working Group, which includes representatives from the Attawapiskat First Nation, the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corporation and officials from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
Evacuees returning after November fire
In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP for the area, blamed the federal government for the slow progress.
Angus said there was a plan to deal with the latest housing crisis which began two years ago this month but the previous minister refused to sign off on it.
"We had a plan on the table to build 30 units, that would have gone a long way. That's again two lost years, and if the government would have shown a little maturity and sat down and worked with the community, we'd be so much further down the road than we are now."
After much political wrangling over the housing crisis, the first of 22 modular homes funded by the federal government began arriving in Attwapiskat on Feb.12, 2012.
Until that point, some families were living in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity.
The NDP MP said the modular homes "lifted the spirits" of the families in Attawapiskat.
Angus welcomed the current project, but said that Valcourt, who took over as minister of aboriginal affairs in February, needs to give a public sign that the five-year plan will be met.
"Once the green flag goes it will again make a big difference. People aren't expecting change overnight, they just want a commitment that change will happen."
As for the 65 residents who were evacuated from Attawapiskat last month following a fire in one of the ATCO trailers, Angus said he spoke to the band council Thursday and that residents will start returning home Friday.
But Angus said the trailers are not a long-term solution.
"People are happy that everybody is coming home, but people are not very happy that they are going back to the construction trailer, they really want this trailer shut down and people moved into something more sustainable."
If all goes well, "all residents will be home for Christmas," Angus said.