Attawapiskat housing shortage to get federal scrutiny

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says no decision has been made to provide more funding to Attawapiskat, but his officials will travel to the northern Ontario reserve to ensure recent aid is being used effectively.
The federal minister of aboriginal affairs said his officials will visit the struggling reserve community of Attawapiskat next week. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Friday that no decision has been made to provide added funding to Attawapiskat to address a housing shortage, but his officials will travel to the northern Ontario reserve to ensure recent aid is being used effectively.

Duncan said the community has a multitude of problems his ministry will have to consider.

"I'm saying we'll send our people in to make some, help make some, decisions with the chief and council," Duncan said. "They have their challenges and this is why they have been in co-management for some time.

"We want to make sure that the resources that we’re putting in there are being effectively utilized and so we will be doing exactly that."

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, a member of the NDP, has been outspoken about the issue and told reporters Friday that the problem is lack of funding for the community and not local governance.

"At the root of the problem in Attawapiskat is chronic underfunding, the inability of the community to ever get to first base," Angus said.

"That has been the problem all along and the refusal of the federal government, previously under the Liberals and now under the Conservatives, to get serious about dealing with the massive infrastructure backlog that's hitting Attawapiskat, that's hitting other communities."

Duncan's announcement comes as the community is struggling with a severe housing shortage, and its leaders and Ottawa dispute whether the government has promised an additional funding.

"Federal officials need to go in and determine exactly what the needs are and what the potential solutions are," said Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's minister of aboriginal affairs.

She said she had spoken to Duncan and noted that the federal government is going to send in officials as of next week.

Wynne told CBC's As it Happens that Emergency Management Ontario has been involved in discussions and is ready to respond, but has not yet received any specific requests.

"There haven't been specific requests or proposals, and that's why it's taken some time to get clear as to what needs to happen," she said

Specific requests would help determine what each organization could offer, she said.

"There are different skill sets from different parts of the government, so we have to play the role that our organization is designed to play," she said. "Having said that, it's very important from my perspective that I stay in touch with the chief."

Wynne said she has not yet been to Attawapiskat but she intends to visit sometime in the next few weeks. 

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence maintained earlier Friday that aboriginal affairs representatives told her, during a meeting Thursday in Thunder Bay, that the government had pledged an additional $2 million on top of $500,000 that had already been committed.

Many residents have been living in makeshift tents and shacks that lack heat, electricity and plumbing.

In late September, the Mushkegowuk tribal council, of which Attawapiskat is a part, declared a state of emergency for the reserve and two others, Kashechewan and Fort Albany.