VIDEO: A view from Attawapiskat before the crisis

Attawapiskat is one of several First Nations communities that features in 8th Fire, an upcoming CBC documentary series examining Canada's fraught 500-year-old relationship with indigenous peoples. We bring you a preview of the footage we filmed in June in the James Bay community.
An excerpt from 8th Fire: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and the Way Forward, a four-part documentary series that begins airing on CBC television Jan. 12 8:47

Reporters, humanitarian workers and government officials descended on the small aboriginal community of Attawapiskat this week in response to the northern Ontario reserve's deepening housing crisis.

It was not the first time that journalists had turned their cameras on Attawapiskat. Earlier this year, CBC was in the community filming a special documentary series called 8th Fire: Aboriginal Peoples, Canada and the Way Forward.

The four-part series begins airing on CBC television and Radio-Canada on Jan. 12, 2012, and is hosted by Wab Kinew, a CBC journalist originally from Onigaming First Nation, an Ojibwa community in northern Ontario. It will examine Canada's fraught 500-year-old relationship with indigenous peoples and introduce viewers to a new generation of aboriginal Canadians who are reclaiming their culture and their confidence.

Shannen's dream

The video above is from the third episode in the series, titled Whose Land is it Anyway? It was filmed in June 2011, directed by Michel Philibert, and produced by Marie-Claude Pednault and Claude Gagnon.

Shannen Koostachin at the National Day of Action on Parliament Hill in May 2008, a rally calling for better schools for First Nations children. The Attawapiskat teenager organized children in her community to lobby for a school to replace the portable classrooms she grew up attending. She was killed in a car accident in 2010. (Courtesy of 8th Fire)
It explores some of Attawapiskat's past and current struggles and tells the tragic story of Shannen Koostachin, a teenage girl from Attawapiskat who led a highly publicized fight to try to convince the federal government to build a new school in her community. The new school was to replace the grade school that had closed because the site it stood on was contaminated. 

Shannen was killed in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 15, and Attawapiskat children are still attending elementary school in prefabricated, portable classrooms.

As part of the 8th Fire project, CBC and Radio-Canada will launch a website of the same name in mid-December that will present dozens of original videos by aboriginal filmmakers from across the country. You can preview one of the videos about the northern Ontario First Nations community of Pikangikum here and visit the project's Facebook page.

First Nations infrastructure

The CBC News series The Big Fix examines Canada's crumbling infrastructure and what's needed to repair it. Stories that look at infrastructure challenges facing First Nations include:

Infrastructure overview: Some of the most glaring infrastructure problems in Canada are on First Nations reserves.

Housing: Nearly half of the houses on Canadian reserves require major repairs, and overcrowding rates are six times greater on reserve than off. Read the article

Water: Bringing water and sewer systems on reserves up to standard and maintaining them that way for the next 10 years would cost about $10 billion. Read the article

Attawapiskat is a Cree community a few kilometres upstream from James Bay on the Attawapiskat River, 500 kilometres northeast of Timmins, Ont. It has had a chronic housing shortage for years, one that was exacerbated two years ago when several families had to move out of their homes because of a sewage backup. Existing housing stock on the reserve is overcrowded and in poor condition; several houses have been condemned and had to be vacated.

Because the band council that runs the reserve cannot afford to build enough new housing, and does not currently have enough land on the reserve to build the subdivision it says it would take to accommodate everyone on its waiting list, Attawapiskat residents have resorted to makeshift solutions. More than 100 people have been living in wood-frame tents, repurposed garages and sheds, and two large trailers that were donated by the De Beers mining company, which operates a diamond mine 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat, to temporarily house the people displaced by the sewage backup.

Below are some facts of interest about the community and its current housing shortage.

Attawapiskat by the numbers

Population: 1,800

Houses: 300

Tents: 5

Sheds: approx. 17

Waiting list for housing: 314 applications

Adults living in a household with spouses, kids and parents: 118

People living in De Beers trailers: approx. 90

Cost of maintaining trailers: $100,000 a year

Federal housing allocation for 2011/12: $581,407

Federal stimulus money for housing in 2009/11: $450,000

Federal housing allocation for 2009/10: $564,082

Cost of building a new house: $250,000

Amount needed to meet all housing needs: $84 million

Federal money for renovating five condemned houses: $500,000 (committed in November)

Cost of renovating one condemned house: $50,000-$100,000

Cost of building a new school: $12.5 million

Benefit payments from De Beers July 2008-January 2011: $10.5 million (held in trust fund by community)

Value of De Beers business contracts with Attawapiskat related to mine construction and operation: $325 million

Source: Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Assembly of First Nations, De Beers Canada