Attawapiskat healing lodge retrofit approval needed

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says he is "hopeful" that a healing lodge on the remote Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat can be retrofitted soon if the government and local leaders work together.

Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Stan Louttit blasts 3rd-party management

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says he is "hopeful" that a healing lodge on the remote Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat can be retrofitted soon if the government and local leaders work together.

Duncan met with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Thursday to discuss third-party management and concerns about housing on the James Bay-area reserve, where many people are living in substandard housing and some are living in unheated tents and trailers.

The government has already agreed send  to 22 modular homes to the community, but they won't arrive until a winter road opens.

Duncan and Spence have also agreed to retrofit the local healing lodge to accommodate people currently living in substandard housing, but Duncan said in a letter Friday that a Canadian Red Cross assessment of the lodge requires approval from Spence and the Attawapiskat Community Control Group for renovations to move forward.

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan met with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He said it was "critical" that the government receive approval as soon as possible so work could begin, noting that the third-party manager is ready to approve funding and order materials "so that we can get to work on this immediately."

Duncan noted his office had been trying to reach the band chief to discuss renovations plans.

"I am hopeful that these types of delays can be avoided so that the healing lodge can be finished by next weekend," Duncan said in the letter. "It is ambitious but possible if we prioritize and work together."

Spence was not immediately available to comment on Duncan's letter or the retrofitting plan for the healing lodge.

Grand chief blasts 3rd-party management

Thursday's meeting also touched on the issue of third-party management. Duncan and Spence have been at odds over the appointment of Jacques Marion, an outside consultant who has assumed control over the band's finances.

Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council that includes the James Bay community told The Canadian Press that the federal government imposed outside control on the band's finances with no warning and insufficient reason.

He said assurances on Thursday from the Aboriginal Affairs minister that the control would only last until spring don't make up for the offensive gesture.

"It doesn't matter, it could be one day of third-party manager. It's the principle of ... kicking people while they're down," Louttit said in a phone interview from Moose Factory, Ont.

Band members have a hard time believing this time it will be different, he explained.

The third-party manager showed up unexpectedly "out of the blue" at the reserve while Spence was in Ottawa for meetings, and in the midst of a housing crisis on the reserve, Louttit said.

"There are more respectful ways to do business. The way it happens, it ticks everybody off."

Spence has filed for a court injunction to oust the overseer immediately. Louttit said Spence expects a ruling Monday or Tuesday.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and his party's Aboriginal Affairs critic, Carolyn Bennett, plan to visit the reserve Saturday.

With files from The Canadian Press