Attawapiskat evacuation may be needed: chief
Northern Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation chief says more needs to be done to remedy a severe housing shortage.
Update Nov. 18, 2011:
The chief of Attawapiskat was at Queens Park Friday to urge the province to do something about her community's housing crisis.
Theresa Spence said she wants the Ontario government to declare a state of emergency — and noted that an evacuation may be necessary. Due to a long-standing housing shortage on the reserve, people are living shacks and tent frames, with no plumbing or running water
The First nation estimates that 200 people are homeless.
Timmins-James Bay M-P Charlie Angus said it's time for the provincial agency Emergency Management Ontario to step up.
"If this was anywhere else in Ontario, the provincial government would be sending in teams," he said.
"We want a team to come in an assess the situation and work with the community."
But Emergency Management Ontario isn't saying whether it thinks an evacuation is necessary. It says it will continue to monitor the situation, but it says housing on reserve is a federal responsibility.
The first nation declared a state of emergency almost three weeks ago.
As winter approaches, a remote northern Ontario reserve is in the grips of a severe housing shortage. In Attawapiskat, there are people living in tent shelters, converted garages, temporary trailers and plywood shacks. The federal government announced yesterday it will provide $500,000 to renovate 15 houses, but residents say more needs to be done.
Almost half the houses need major repairs or have been condemned. The First Nation residents are wondering why they aren't seeing more benefits from the De Beers diamond mine about 90 kilometres to the west.
'We don't know what's going on'
Stella Kioke Koostachin stands in the mud outside the tent frame her four grand-children have been living in with their parents for two years.
"With my grand-kids living in an un-insulated tent frame, no running water and we have De Beers in our backyard we should be rich with housing and we don't see nothing," she said. "We don't know what's going on."
Attawapiskat is getting money from DeBeers — compensation for use of the First Nation's traditional lands, but the agreement is confidential. Chief Theresa Spence said the bulk of the money is invested in a trust fund set-up by a previous band council for future investment in economic development projects. She said she wants to renegotiate the agreement, but for now the first nation can't access the fund for housing.
"It's really restricted guidelines on it so we only get a little amount to spend on community development," Spence said.
"It's not enough to meet the housing crisis that we have."
While some on the reserve have questions about mismanagement of band funds over the years, they also note the funding from the federal department of Aboriginal Affairs has not kept pace with inflation or population.
The chief said the community needs about 200 houses — and the federal government's recent funding announcement only scratches the surface of the problem.
Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus visited the reserve earlier this week. He shook his head at the situation as he toured through one of the shelters.
"We're looking at a house that's basically full of little children (where) we have extreme black mold in the ceiling (and) in the walls," he said.
"The man has tuberculosis, so having little children in here is posing major concerns. The fire box is makeshift; you can see the fire coming out the back. It's just an accident — a disaster —waiting to happen."
The house Angus refers to is home to Elder Gabriel Fireman, who lives there with his four grandchildren and their parents. He said was told 20 years ago his house was going to be renovated.
But he's still waiting.
Trailers anything but temporary
In Attawapiskat First Nation, trailers meant to provide temporary housing during an emergency have become a permanent fixture. About two years ago, the reserve's sewage system backed up and flooded basements in a number of houses. Some people were put up in trailers donated by the diamond mining company De Beers, while the mess was being cleaned up.
As band chief Theresa Spence walked the halls of the trailers, she noted that the dwellings have become permanent housing for about 90 people — including families with children. They share two kitchens and some cook in their rooms. Spence said she worries about the lack of functioning fire alarms.
"To me this place is not really safe, but we have no choice but to keep the people here to keep them warm. It's a housing crisis."
Spence said her community needs 200 more houses. The federal government recently announced it will provide about $500,000 to renovate 15 houses on the reserve over the next month. Band officials say it's a start, but it's not nearly enough.