Thunder Bay

'Our job is to close the gap,' Minister of Indigenous Affairs tells First Nations

Mining is not the solution to the social ills, including suicides, plaguing First Nations in northern Ontario, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and First Nations leaders agree.

'We need to be whole' to benefit from mining development, Eabametoong chief tells Carolyn Bennett

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says it's government's job to help First Nations with education and help so they can make their own decisions about economic development. (Jody Porter/CBC )
"We need to be whole' to benefit from mining development " Eabametoong chief Elizabeth Atlookan tells Carolyn Bennett. The federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs visits Northern Ontario

Mining is not the solution to the social ills, including suicides, plaguing First Nations in northern Ontario, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and First Nations leaders agree.

Minister Carolyn Bennett was in Attawapiskat on Monday after the Cree community on the James Bay coast cited more than a dozen suicide attempts in April and 28 recorded attempts in March.

Bennett's visit was part of a tour of remote First Nations in northern Ontario by the Minister. 

"We see there's mining industries, there's governments that want to get into our traditional lands", Chief Wayne Moonias told Bennett last Friday in Neskantaga First Nation. "Development is not going to occur with the social conditions facing our community."

Attawapiskat has declared four states of emergency over social problems, including a shortage of housing and spikes in deaths by suicide since 2008 – the year DeBeers opened its diamond mine nearby.

In Neskantaga overcrowded and unsafe homes lead to despair, according to resident Bradley Moonias who said he and his wife and young children are scattered among several houses, sleeping on couches or sharing bedrooms with extended family.

"It creates tensions," Bradley Moonias said during a community meeting with Bennett. "Suicide, it comes from the homes."

Tommy Joe Moonias says it's scary living in a house with a crack in its foundation but there is nowhere else to live in Neskantaga First Nation. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Tommy Joe Moonias showed visitors a crack the length of his arm in the basement wall of his home in Neskantaga. (Moonias is a common name in Neskantaga, but not everyone is directly related).

"It's scary," Tommy Joe Moonias said. "The house is going to cave in sometime and I could be sleeping upstairs."

Tommy Joe Moonias said he would move, but there is nowhere else for him to go.

There about 80 houses in Neskantaga First Nation, located approximately 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Nearly 300 people live on the reserve. Several of the homes are uninhabitable because of mold or water damage, according to a band councillor.

Neskantaga is close to the proposed Ring of Fire mining development. So is neighbouring Eabametoong (Fort Hope) First Nation, where chief Elizabeth Atlookan said the social conditions are similar to Neskantaga, and Attawapiskat.

Eabametoong First Nation Chief Elizabeth Atlookan says First Nations have received 'sub-standard help' to deal with crisis for too long. (Jody Porter/CBC)
"As First Nations communities in the north, we have endured quite a bit of sub-standard help, we have had to do without in many areas," Atlookan said. "I'm hoping that will change."

Atlookan said dealing with the housing backlog, getting help for addictions and mental health concerns must come before any more talk about mining in the area.

"We were very honest about that," she said. "The well-being of an individual, family, community is very important, it's crucial when you talk about industry."

"If we are to benefit, we need to be whole," she added.

Bennett said it's up to First Nations to determine their own futures.

"I think that communities get to choose what the economic development needs to be for their community," she said. "Our job is to make sure we close the gap on the social indicators, the education and health."