Attawapiskat leader threatens civil disobedience

A regional chief who represents Attawapiskat says a number of his counterparts in other First Nations across the country are prepared to engage in civil disobedience over Ottawa's handling of a housing crisis in the northern Ontario community.

Louttit on Attawapiskat crisis

11 years ago
Duration 10:41
As the government-appointed 3rd party manager has been kicked off the Attawapiskat reserve, Grand Chief Stan Louttit discusses what may be next for the northern Ontario First Nation

A regional chief who represents Attawapiskat says that a number of his counterparts in other First Nations are prepared to engage in civil disobedience over Ottawa's handling of a housing crisis in the northern Ontario community.

"There's people who are ready to stand up and be counted... to stand up and do civil disobedience so that we are heard," Stan Louttit told Evan Solomon on CBC-TV's Power & Politics.

"If the minister does not want to work with us, you may see that sooner than later," said Louttit, who presides over the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents Attawapiskat and six other First Nations.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan has ordered an independent audit of Attawapiskat's finances and has appointed a third-party manager to oversee spending, after local leaders declared an emergency over substandard housing conditions.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared an emergency in October as winter approached, while some members of the community of about 1,800 huddled in unheated tents, condemned housing and portable trailers.

Spence has criticized Ottawa's handling of the crisis, saying residents need emergency assistance first and foremost, and accusing the federal government of trying to silence her community. Spence has also said the local band council is developing its own plan to deal with the crisis, though she has not provided details.

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When the outside manager, Jacques Marion, arrived in Attawapiskat on Monday, he was promptly asked to leave by the band, which said his presence was unwanted.

In a rambling but emotional speech at the Assembly of First Nations meeting in Ottawa, Spence said her community had fulfilled its obligations but her people were suffering because of longstanding substandard living conditions.

"We need to say, enough is enough … and I'm asking the chiefs to tell the government that what was done to Attawapiskat First Nation … we're not going to take it no more," she said.  "We're not going to tolerate this childish behaviour from the government when we ask for assistance."

Request for UN assistance

Spence was in Ottawa to meet Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, along with several other First Nations chiefs who are in the capital to set their agenda for the next year.

The assembled leaders passed a resolution Tuesday declaring their support for "the leadership and citizens of Attawapiskat First Nation in their efforts to address the emergency needs of their people including ensuring adequate housing and health supports." 

'We have many Attawapiskats. It's an issue that has really plagued this country.'—Shawn Atleo, Assembly of First Nations national chief

The resolution also requested the United Nations bring in a "special rapporteur" to find out whether Ottawa is meeting its legal obligations toward aboriginal people. It calls on Ottawa to respond quickly in First Nations communities afflicted by substandard living conditions and advises the aboriginal affairs minister to work with local chiefs and councils instead of imposing new measures on them.

"We have many Attawapiskats," Atleo said. "It’s an issue that has really plagued this country, and for the first time, Canadians in a really significant manner have really had, right in their living rooms, through the reports coming out of Attawapiskat, what our people have felt day in and day out for a long, long time."

Atleo supported the chief’s decision to kick out the third-party manager, saying that Spence "is doing what an elected leader in any community must do: stand up strong for her people."

"We can’t accept externally imposed solutions. That has given us the status quo that we have now."

The Attawapiskat crisis has been a hot topic in the House of Commons for several days, with Opposition MPs deploring the government's focus on financial management, and Conservative MPs defending Ottawa's emergency response.

Harper has said his government has given the community around $90 million over the past five years, though critics noted most of that money went to infrastructure and services unrelated to housing.

On Tuesday, Harper reiterated that the government won't simply "expend public funds" but will make sure "that help gets to the people who actually need it and that we are accountable for doing that."

Martin links crisis to failed Kelowna accord

Former prime minister Paul Martin said the housing crisis in Attawapiskat exemplifies the problems that his abandoned Kelowna agreement on aboriginal quality of life was meant to address.

"The Kelowna accord was set up to deal with this very issue," he said Tuesday in an interview with CBC News. "As well as with education, clean water, accountability and health care."

Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin speaks at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 16. He says the Kelowna accord was a lost opportunity. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In November 2005, Martin, the premiers and aboriginal leaders met in Kelowna, B.C., for the First Ministers Conference on Aboriginal Affairs. The meeting resulted in a five-year, $5-billion plan to improve the lives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

But within days, Martin’s minority Liberal government was defeated, triggering an election won by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

"Unfortunately, the government simply walked away from agreements that had been made with the First Nations and aboriginal leadership and all of the provinces and territories," Martin said.

He later put forward a private member's bill calling for the accord to be honoured, which received royal assent. However, such bills cannot compel the government to spend money and the Conservatives decided to take their own course on native issues.

With files from the CBC's Terry Milewski and The Canadian Press