Attawapiskat tells 3rd-party manager to leave

The Attawapiskat third-party manager has been asked by the band to leave, CBC News has confirmed, just hours after federal officials announced he was on the ground at the remote James Bay community.

The third-party manager sent by the federal government to handle the desperate housing situation in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario has been asked by the band to leave, CBC News has confirmed.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence told CBC News that she had informed the band manager of her decision.

"I advised my band manager I don't want them in my community … doesn't work for our community … we should focus on the crisis, not on other things," she told host Evan Solomon, on CBC's Power & Politics.

The government said earlier it had chosen Jacques Marion, from the accounting and consulting firm BDO Canada, as its third-party manager for Attawapiskat. Marion was to exercise signing authority for all department spending and would decide which band staff are required to run its program and services.

Spence said the minister responsible for First Nations "didn't listen."

"We'd like to work together but put third party away … We've demonstrated we have our deficit down. We don't need a banker to come and tell us what to do," the chief told Solomon.

Marion and other federal officials arrived earlier Monday in the First Nations community and were ready to get to work, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan said.

After being asked to leave, Marion "wished to respect the volatile situation and is currently not in the community," Duncan's office said in a statement.

Marion remains in full control the community's funding from Aboriginal Affairs and hopes to work with the community to address urgent needs, the statement added.

"It is extremely worrying that the chief and council are not open to outside assistance. Minister Duncan met with Chief Theresa Spence and Grand Chief Stan Louttit and reiterated that our government's priority is to ensure that residents of Attawapiskat have access to safe, warm, and dry shelter."

Duncan urged the chief and band council to work with the third-party manager, his office said. 

About 1,800 people live in the northern Ontario community, where a severe housing shortage has forced families to live in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity. Many others live in crowded, substandard housing.

Local leaders declared a state of emergency at the end of October.

The decision last week to appoint a third-party manager angered Spence, who described the move as "very shameful." Spence has said the government has focused too much attention on the band's finances instead of working to solve the housing crisis.

The government says it has given Attawapiskat around $90 million since 2006, including $4.3 million for on-reserve housing. It has also ordered an independent audit of the community's finances.

"If there are problems identified, we will take immediate action to address them to ensure long-term solutions for the community," Duncan said.

'Lost week of inaction'

During question period Monday, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus accused the government of failing to act quickly enough to solve the housing crisis.

"Temperatures have again dropped below -20 and the people of Attawapiskat are again suffering through another lost week of inaction," the MP said Monday.

Angus, whose riding includes the northern Cree community, demanded to know when its residents will have access to safe housing.

In response, Duncan reiterated that the federal government is responding to the crisis.

"Supplies are being sent into the community and materials for renovating homes have been ordered by chief and council," he said. "I strongly urge the chief and council to work with the third-party manager in the interests of the people."

However, Angus rejected the answer as "bunk," saying Duncan needs to do more to fix the situation.

"Where is his plan to guarantee that these people will be moved into safe proper housing with a long-term plan?" Angus asked. "Where is that plan?"

Spence meets First Nations chiefs 

Spence was in Ottawa Monday 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 AFN has backed Spence's call for more help, and Atleo is expected to address the reserve's issues in a key speech on Tuesday.

Inadequate housing is a regular item on the AFN agenda and will likely figure prominently during this week's meetings of aboriginal leaders. They are also planning for a summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January, but housing is not explicitly on the agenda.

Attawapiskat is only the most recent example of how overcrowding and dilapidated infrastructure on reserves can lead to community-wide health and safety issues.

With files from The Canadian Press