Attawapiskat land expansion to be 'expedited' for approval, Canadian government says
Lengthy delays for approval of additions to reserves a 'real irritant,' Carolyn Bennett says
The federal government says it is working in conjunction with the province of Ontario to fast-track an application for an expansion of land by the First Nations community of Attawapiskat.
The remote northern community counts nearly 2,000 residents living on-reserve over two-square kilometres of land. The reserve is without all-year road access to the nearest city service centre located some 480 kilometres away in Timmins, Ont.
The First Nations community formally requested what is known as an addition to reserve (ATR) on April 15, days after declaring a state of emergency following multiple cases of youth suicide attempts.
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"All parties are working to expedite the process to complete this ATR proposal as quickly as possible," confirmed Shawn Jackson, a spokesperson for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in an email to CBC News Thursday evening.
The hope is that the addition of new land will help alleviate overcrowding by making room for nearly 100 housing units over the next five years. And with Indigenous youth being the fastest growing segment of the population, the expansion will serve to build hundreds more units in the decades to come.
Chief 'surprised' by government's action
The land in question belongs to the province of Ontario. It measures nearly 12 square kilometres and sits on higher ground than the existing reserve, which is prone to flooding every spring.
"The First Nation has indicated this land would meet its needs," said Flavia Mussio, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, in an email to CBC News on Thursday.
Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh said he was "surprised" by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's commitment to making this land transfer a priority following their face-to-face meeting in Ottawa earlier this week.
Trudeau also announced two permanent mental health care workers for Attawapiskat, part of a broader investment of $70 million over three years to address the mental health crisis afflicting Indigenous people living on-reserve and in the territories.
The prime minister heard first-hand accounts of the substandard living conditions facing some 20 youth from Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario. Large families living together in two bedroom homes, dilapidated housing with black mould and a lack of clean drinking water were all brought up.
Delay 'a real irritant'
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said parliamentarians have been grappling with the issue of land management for several years now.
"The lengthy process for additions to reserves has been a real irritant for a lot of First Nations," Bennett said on Parliament Hill Wednesday.
A 2012 report from the Senate committee on Aboriginal Peoples recommended ways to expedite the process of additions to reserves.
"From an economic point of view, access to land and natural resources represents one of the most critical issues faced by First Nations today," the committee heard witnesses say.
The Office for the Auditor General also testified that the federal government had yet to address a number of deficiencies which it highlighted years earlier in a 2005 audit of the government's ATR policy.
"We are taking this issue very seriously," Bennett said adding that "people shouldn't have to wait a decade in order to be able to move their communities forward."
Bennett could not say when the addition to the reserve would be approved.
Pressed for an answer, Bennett said "as fast as we can."
With files from CBC's Olivia Stefanovitch