Posted on November 30, 2011

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.”