State of emergency for Attawapiskat tribe

Four weeks after a state of emergency was declared by Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario, government officials are beginning to take notice and aid workers from the Red Cross have been sent in to provide disaster relief.

A housing crisis has left many people homeless, without access to proper sanitation facilities, heating and running water, and in increasing danger due to steadily declining temperatures. An initial $500,000 was pledged by the government to assist with the renovation of five vacant units.

Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has been very vocal in an attempt to gain recognition of the crisis, believes the lack of support demonstrated thus far “is a black mark on Canada.” With evident frustration, he questioned, “How is it that a community can be left so far behind that has done everything right, has tried so hard just to stay afloat, and yet, it’s reached a breaking point like this?”

The state of emergency was originally applied to three communities, but the focus was moved to Attawapiskat to the particularly appalling conditions faced by its residents.

The delay in the response, according to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada spokesperson Geneviève Guibert, has to do with the process which must be undergone before a state of emergency is officially declared.

“It’s one thing to say that there is a state of emergency, and it’s another thing to file it and make it official so that people can act on it,” Guibert clarified. “It’s unfortunate, but there’s a whole process that people have to go through, not just Attawapiskat.”

The official notice from Emergency Management Ontario was provided to the department on November 24.

When asked why conditions were allowed to deteriorate to the extent of crisis proportions, Guibert responded, “It’s unfortunately a question for the First Nations.” She continued, “We’re working with them, because obviously it’s a really bad situation, but like any other First Nation, they’re responsible for using the federal funds [given annually] to what they believe is the most urgent need.”
Guibert noted that a multitude of factors, including governance, geographical location and debt struggles may all have contributed to creating the current situation.

However, according to Angus, this debt was actually caused by the federal government due to their neglect to respond to a sewage crisis which occurred in 2009, subsequently forcing people from their homes.

“The federal government refused to recognize that it was a state of emergency, Emergency Measures walked away, and that left the community to deal with 100 people who were in sewage-infested homes getting sick,” Angus explained.
“And that’s caused the community a great deal of financial harm and stress.”

However, while the government response been minimal, Angus believes the issue has captured the attention of Canadians. “I think average Canadians have already been way ahead of government,” he said. “Canadians have been outraged when they found out that this was happening.”

A major reassessment of relations must occur to create a long-term solution, according to Angus. He commented, “We need to rethink our relationship with our First Nations communities, and we need the federal government and the province to start getting serious about ensuring that basic services [and] the ability of people to live in basic levels of dignity and security are maintained in communities in our own country.”

Donations are being accepted by the Red Cross to assist in their efforts of providing emergency supplies.

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