The federal department responsible for First Nations has known about the worsening living conditions at Attawapiskat for years, says former Indian affairs minister Chuck Strahl.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House, Strahl tells host Evan Solomon the crisis at Attawapiskat "has been a slow-moving train wreck for a long time."

Strahl's comments come on the heels of remarks made by the current Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan during a House of Commons committee this past week.

Duncan said that officials in his department were not aware of Attawapiskat's housing problems until Oct. 28, despite his officials having visited the community several times in the past year.

Strahl, who retired from politics earlier this year, said he has not spoken to Duncan, but his guess is that Oct. 28 is the date when Duncan learned about "the actual crisis moment."

Attawapiskat "was always a problem," said Strahl.

"It was not good when I was there, and I don't think it's appreciably or any better now. That was well known, everybody knew it was a very difficult community for a bunch of reasons."

The federal government has put the community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario under third-party management and ordered an audit to find out how federal funds have been spent in the commmunity of about 1,800.

The government says it has given Attawapiskat roughly $90 million since 2006. However, documents from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development show Attawapiskat only received $4.3 million in funding for housing since 2006.

"Sad to say that in some of these communities, because some of the other needs are equal or greater than housing, that's how difficult it is, and arguably every one of them is a crisis," said Strahl.

3rd-party management 'reasonable and responsible'

Greg Rickford, secretary to the minister of aboriginal affairs, told The House the government's decision earlier in the week to place the Attawapiskat First Nations under third-party management is the "most reasonable and responsible way to move forward."

"We have a legal basis for proceeding with third-party management given the pressing health and safety issues," he said. "Over the medium term, any funds from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development will necessarily involve our role in any final decisions with respect to those resources."

Band Chief Theresa Spence has objected to what she says is the government's focus on money and blaming band members for living conditions.

"I guess as First Nations, when we do ask for assistance and make a lot of noise, we get penalized for it, so to put us in third-party [management]

while we're in crisis, is a very shameful disgrace from the government," she told CBC's Tom Parry.

"They should be focusing on the crisis that we're going through, not blaming anybody. I'm very disappointed and discouraged and I'm sure the other First Nations are going to be discouraged. If they have problems in their communities and if they ask assistance and you have to go to the media, they're going to get penalized like we are right now," Spence said.

Rickford said neither side should be assigning blame.

"I think we both have a shared desire and a shared responsibility to work through this," he said.      

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to include comments made by Chuck Strahl during his interview on The House with respect to the timing of the current crisis in Attawapiskat.
    Dec 04, 2011 10:59 AM ET