Locals Disagree on Who’s to Blame for Attawapiskat Crisis

Heather Scoffield, Globe and Mail, November 29, 2011

Politicians, journalists, bureaucrats and Red Cross aid workers swooped into this reserve west of James Bay to see what a spiralling aboriginal housing crisis looks like in 2011.

The problem is in plain sight everywhere.

In a one-room, tented shack where Lisa Kiokee-Linklater is watching television with her two toddlers, two mattresses lie on the floor. Each is a bed for three. Mould is creeping across one mattress even though Ms. Kiokee-Linklater just bought it last summer. It cost her $1,000.

There is no running water, no bathroom and cold comes through the uninsulated floor. There is little room for her four children to play. The broiling cast-iron wood stove that takes up one corner of the room represents a burn hazard and eliminates the notion of the rambunctious play that is the norm for most young kids.

Moving into the tent was Ms. Kiokee-Linklater’s choice. It seemed a step up from her previous home next door, where she shared a single bathroom with 20 other people until it became too much for her and her growing family.

“It’s kind of better, yeah,” she said, keeping a watchful eye on a son as he ate spaghetti with his fingers. “But during the winter, it’s hard. I cut back on the baths because it is so cold.”

Among the outsiders who flew into the Cree community on Tuesday were interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel and Charlie Angus, the local NDP MP.

They and the officials who arrived with them are looking for solutions for the housing crisis. Emergency supplies including blankets are coming in by air and officials are talking about how the federal government can help allay the band’s many problems.

“It’s really terrible that in Canada we have people in tents and shacks when it’s minus 15,” Ms. Turmel said after touring the town and meeting several families.

There is little new in the plight of the people of Attawapiskat. Aboriginal leaders will tell you there are similar crises on reserves in northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan. Until this week, few people paid attention to this community’s call for help. But after a campaign by Mr. Angus and local officials, including letters, news conferences and a video posted to YouTube, people took notice.

“It’s Ground Zero of Canadian tragedy,” Mr. Angus said.

Chief Theresa Spence says the five families living in tents should be housed by Christmas. But Ms. Kiokee-Linklater says she’s heard it all before and isn’t counting on vague promises. She is focused on making do.

“We need a major change in housing,” she said.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he’s not happy that millions of federal dollars haven’t alleviated the housing problem. He said officials are going to find out why and how to do more.

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that reserves need about 80,000 new homes across the country. Already about 45 per cent of first nations housing stock is substandard, but often people live in condemned houses because they have nowhere else to go.

Roseanne Fireman used to live in a condemned Attawapiskat house. Her brother and young children still live in the structure, despite a ceiling ruined by an electrical fire. The living room floor is pocked with holes and kitchen floor has turned spongy with moisture. At one point, seven families crammed together in the three-bedroom house.

It’s a typical pattern. Houses are built, families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home.

Ms. Spence is constantly seeking new solutions for the homeless. “They should have a place where they are comfortable and safe,” she said. “They need running water and heat.”

About 100 people are living in two construction trailers once used as residences for an employee camp at the nearby DeBeers diamond mine.

These people share four bathrooms and a communal kitchen and cram together in small rooms reminiscent of a university residence.

Stella Wheesk lives in one of the trailers with her partner and her one-month-old baby, Rain. Their tiny flat is an improvement from her former home. That was a house condemned two years ago because it was infested with cockroaches and tainted by mould.

Donald Jacasum is living in the burnt-out skeleton of a shack, with makeshift wooden siding nailed over a charred wall. He cooks on a wood stove and has a bucket for a latrine.

Health authorities have told him he can’t live like this so he is preparing to move into a bed at the treatment centre.

“At least I am alive,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”

The people of Attawapiskat are angry about living conditions, but don’t agree on how they arrived at this point and why federal money has not stretched to cover needs. Some blame Ottawa, some blame the province and some blame their own leaders.

Ms. Turmel said the response from Mr. Harper and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has been unacceptable because Ottawa points fingers at the band rather than looking at its own practices to ensure adequate funding.

“What I would like is Mr. Harper and Mr. Duncan to come here and see them,” she said. “They might not have the same answer.”

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  • Myopic Governance

    As a Canadian I can shed some light on this situation.

    First Nations people (the PC term for natives) have dual citizenship. They are uniquely aboriginal and get many benefits because of this. They are also Canadian, and get health benefits, electricity, running water etc.

    The problem is they have signed treaties and are therefore technically their own Nation. They are sovereign and should be taking care of themselves. But when they fail to do so properly (problems with water, obscene crime rates, etc) the rest of Canada is blamed for failing to provide for Aboriginals. The system doesn’t seem to be working, the rest of Canada is tired of being taxed to pay for the natives and Natives, on the other hand, seem to be incapable of taking care of themselves.

    The situation is kind of like, if you payed for your teenage son, to live in an apartment, payed for all his expenses etc. They would not feel totally independent and would blame you if things went awry.

  • white is right, black is whack

    I’m sure the evil white Canadians are plotting day and night to oppress the aborigines and other nonwhites. Better send our buddy Tim Wise over to Canada to browbeat those evil whites and encourage them to pass more anti-discrimation laws.

  • Anonymous

    An air bed wouldn’t cost $1000 like that golden mattress. Neither would a folding bed. Sometimes it feels like the world around is populated by retarded children – some of them client-victims of the welfare state and others cog-masters of it.

    That being said, the Amerindians in question should be commended for being able to build their own makeshift housing and for managing to live in dense quarters, which are indeed reasonable adult approach. One shudders to think what would the blacks get hit hardest with in similar circumstances.

  • Anonymous

    Cameras roll uncovering this ‘tragedy’. All seem mystified as to how this has come about. Man, rank and file Canadians must feel themselves quite lucky or privileged compared to what they see in these images. They should just relax and shut up and be happy.

    Things must be getting really bad for average Canadians, or they are just about to vote against further immigration or something, for them to have to make a news story of this.

  • Anonymous

    It’s too bad they didn’t put aside some of dough from their casinos for a rainy day. They should have invested in better tents and camping equipment. Have they lost the secret formula for building an igloo?

  • Dawesy

    I am a Canuck from Ontario, and a few minor pieces of information seem to have unintentionally been left out of this “news”. Firstly, since 1996, this reserve has received about $91,000,000.00. Yes, that’s right, 91 million dollars. The population is about 1200 people. Because of the way the Indian Act and self-government works, the provincial and federal government have absolutely no idea where this money went. It is unfortunate that things ended up this bad, but how much more do they actually expect us taxpayers to shell out?

  • sbuffalonative

    Goodness, the Cree have gotten soft. Just imagine how they used to live before the white man arrived.

    It seems they’re happier returning to the natural, tradition ways, rejecting the white man’s living standards. Now they’re content returning to their pre-white man tents. An added benefit, fewer baths.

    The Cree were taken from their natural elements and thrust into the white man’s world. The best thing for them may be to cut off all white aid and let them re-discover their own cultural ways.

  • Anonymous

    What are they doing, if anything, to break the cycle and lift themselves out of poverty? They subsist on handouts from the government then turn around and criticize them for not doing enough. Have they no self-respect?

  • EW

    It’s a typical pattern. Houses are built, families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home.

    And, apparently, they live here without doing the proper maintenance of their own home or even attempting to enlarge it.

    Btw “houses are built”… who built those houses?

  • Rebelcelt

    And just how is it they are worse off than they were before the white man hit their shores? They lived in worse shelter but it was just as cold…. or at least we caused global warming for them…

    Here is a tip, break from your cultural ties and get a job…start at the bottom in a minimum wage position and work your way up.

    I have had to start over before, so have millions of others, but I know no one is giving me anything if I sit in my house and cry as the structures falls in around me.

  • patriot

    I live in Manhattan and make a good living. I bought a sealy posturepedic mattress for $700.

    I’d say it takes skills that I don’t possess to grow mold in minus 15 degree weather…

  • Anonymous

    The obvious question here being, What did they do before Western Civilization came over?

  • Anonymous

    9 — EW wrote at 5:28 AM on December 1:

    “It’s a typical pattern. Houses are built, families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home.

    And, apparently, they live here without doing the proper maintenance of their own home or even attempting to enlarge it.

    Btw “houses are built”… who built those houses?”

    Your comment reminds me of the homes the government had built for Indians on “Rancherias” in Northern California. Not a month passed before the doors were gone, windows broken, and a number of junk cars appeared on the property. When I lived in the area I was warned to just never leave a car that had broken down anywhere near a rancheria overnight because it would be stripped by morning.

    The local sheriff’s office had trouble because when the Mexicans came for harvest, the Indian women would date them because they had more money than their own men. The Indian men often got into fights with the Mexicans and even gunfire incidents as a result. That was in the 1980s. The only other news I have from there is that the establishment of the first casino resulted in a inter-tribal battle – with shooting, that was so active that the FBI had to come in and entire sections of county roads (state highway) were closed for a couple days.

  • Auntie Em

    I used to pass through an American Indian reservation a couple times of times a year where there were brand new suburban style homes all gutted out and in shambles. No one seemed to live in them.

    On one of my trips I asked someone what had happened there and was told that the natives scorned the government’s help so they had destroyed the homes.

  • Anonymous

    Question:Who’s to blame?

    Answer: “families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home”.

  • Anonymous

    Indians in the U.S have reservations that are mostly far from their original territory, so you can say that when we pushed them out, there could be many lingering problems. For God’s sake the Trail of Tears fiasco was really awful and the Indians received bad land in the Midwest, and then were cheated further.

    But MANY Indian tribes in Canada live on land that their ancestors lived on. In some cases, their territories encompass hundreds or even thousands of square miles (Nunavut for example.)

    If they can’t get it together despite tens of millions of dollars ever year, what hope is there?

  • Dog Pen

    NA Indian to White man: “Get off my land!”

    White man to NA Indian: “Get off my taxes!”

  • H.F. Wolff

    Methinks this issue would be easy to resolve. Instead of sending one check to the chief or band council to spend on the tribes’ members, the government sends a check to each band member individually.

    Then let the council collect its “taxes” from each recipient member.

    Now then, that council either provides decent services to its band members, or the band member takes his check/money and moves to where the services are better.

    I’d bet dollars to donuts that within a few years this issue would resolve itself.

  • Sureesh

    When I first moved to the U.S in the 1980s, they (even newspapers and TV-of course there was no internet backc then) used to call them “Indians.” I was hopeful that I, an immigrant from India, would eventually qualify for their government goodies. We Indians from India are smart and have a good work ethic so we could be a lot more productive with their handouts than they are.