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My Visit to Attawapiskat

Posted by Bob Rae on December 18, 2011 | No Comments

Caley is two months old, and was sleeping quietly on the bed near her mother. A beautiful baby, shock of dark hair and a peaceful face.

We visited Caley and her mother this morning in Attawapiskat. They live with Caley’s dad in a one bedroom shack, which is kept warm with a wood stove that leaks, the door shielded by a blanket to keep the cold air out. It is -23 out, with a steady north wind bringing clear, crisp weather. Caley’s house has no running water, and no toilet. There is a shared toilet and sink in the house next door.

Caley’s little face and presence on that bed stays with me still. What will her life be like? If it takes a village to help a child, it takes a country to help a village.

1,800 people live in Attawapiskat, one of several isolated Cree communities on the James Bay coast north west of Moose Factory. More than half the people are under the age of 24. The community got running water and sewage treatment thanks to a federal-provincial agreement signed in the early ’90’s (a time familiar to me), but it doesn’t cover all the houses.

The housing backlog is nothing short of catastrophic – old houses needing to be fixed up, mould and rot are widespread, and overcrowding is rampant.

Chief Theresa Spence, who had the guts to declare a state of emergency and who is trying to deal with some challenges of the immediate past, greeted us warmly together with Co-manager Clayton Kennedy, who knows and understands the “numbers”.

We visited old and new housing, (21 to a two bedroom house), and got a sense of the good, the bad, and the really ugly.

Visited the Healing Lodge built with money from the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Centre (a legacy of Rae government in the ’90’s) – beautiful structure hasn’t been funded for operations – no running water, needs better heating.

Red Cross and Ontario emergency teams impressive, most urgent cases will see some improvement when they move into healing lodge, but my fear is that southern complacency will set in once 22 modular homes arrive at the end January.

Yes, it’s an emergency, but let us understand the political dynamic at work. Harper uses the crisis to shift blame on to reserve leadership, and sends a clear signal to all other reserves – “open your mouths and complain and we’ll take you over…” ‘Third party manager’ such a euphemism, not a third party, but a direct hire of the colonial Harper administration, will just fire a bunch of people and declare victory.

The colonial administration has two levels of intervention – the first being the co-manager, who works with the band council. Clayton Kennedy admits there were some budget issues – but shows me how the Council itself has begun the changes that will lead to balance (more quickly than Jim Flaherty). The problem is not enough benefit from economic development, no resource sharing, and no change to colonial structures that have not really changed. Will there be a “Northern Spring”? Or an “occupy movement”? Don’t see how people who have been so marginalised and treated with such condescension and lack of respect will continue to just sit back and take it.

This community and hundreds like it have been “out there” in the awareness and consciousness of most Canadians. But now they are “right here”, on our screens, and next door in our communities as the barrier between aboriginal and non-aboriginal just breaks down.

The Kelowna Accord was the product of a year and half’s worth of negotiation and discussion between the federal government, the provinces and territories and the aboriginal leadership across the country. Housing, infrastructure, water, education, and new structures of accountability were all there – real money fully booked in the 2005 budget, the one the Conservatives, Bloc, and NDP all decided to defeat.

When Mr Harper took over, he threw Kyoto, Kelowna, and national child care out the door. So the underfunding in Attawapiskat for basic resources, and the absence in any initiatives on self-government and accountability, are his responsibility.

His calculated decision to “blame the victim” and to attack band management has to be exposed for what it is, a deliberate attempt to avoid any responsibility for his government’s neglect. And it’s not INAC or Minister Duncan, it’s Harper himself who saw a political problem and decided to turn the tables and blame the victim.

The court battle next week over the appointment of the colonial Harper administrator will be an interesting test.

These issues will not go away. The underlying question is this – can we find the political will to imagine different structures, to end the isolation and deprivation that has become a way of life, and to bring the country together behind a new strategy?

- Bob Rae

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My Visit to Attawapiskat »

December 18, 2011

My Visit to Attawapiskat »

December 18, 2011

My Visit to Attawapiskat »

December 18, 2011

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  1. Avatar of Bernice  Graham Bernice Graham said on

    Beautifully written and many important points made. Seems though to be an up hill if not impossible task to get the Cons to see the situation as it really is.

    What can we do as Liberals when the power is in others hands to solve the many problems?

    Keep up the good work, maybe by some miracle THEY will see the light and do things right.

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  2. Avatar of Ken Cunningham Ken Cunningham said on

    ”The problem is not enough benefit from economic development, no resource sharing, and no change to colonial structures that have not really changed. Will there be a “Northern Spring”? Or an “occupy movement”? Don’t see how people who have been so marginalised and treated with such condescension and lack of respect will continue to just sit back and take it.”

    Mr Rae is absolutely right. And for this to occur we must respect the treaties and help to ditch the colonial indian act.
    INAC holds all FN’s land in trust and leases it out to companies who are then told to square it with the relevent band. Often the negotiated ”deal”is kept secret – Attawapiskat had no help from INAC in negotiating with debeers, a multi-national corp.
    I’ve lived on a remote reserve and seen how little respect or consideration bands receive in portioning out the wealth from resources on their land; this has to stop!.
    There is still a lot of healing to be done amongst FNs, many of whom are basically a broken culure – it will take time and a lot of patience on the part of our govt. Yes, there must be enhanced accountability – but not public, politically motivated blame and scapegoating.
    Recently i heard Michael Hutchinson[ who works for APTN] say that while he was a negotiator for a Manitoba landclaims org, he witnessed more then once the removal of the word ”share” from the documents by the govt negotiators. I have heard similar stories or disrespect and bad faith shown by our representatives. This is entirely shameful. It is little wonder that conditions remain abysmal on and off reserve for many FNs after all these years. It is to our national shame.

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  3. Avatar of Norma G Norma G said on

    Population growth needs to be tempered. Too many being raised by Grandparents.
    Young girls need to be rewarded for staying in school and delaying motherhood.It would be best for everyone.

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  4. Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

    Good God Bob, you keep going down the same Liberal path and expecting a different result. As soon as an audit is conducted and mismanagement is found you will AGAIN be on the wrong side of another issue. How refreshing it would have been to have you and the NDP stand up with Harper and support the third party manager and accountabliity. Your angle should have been “Third party manager YES but bring aid regardless of cost immediately for the good of the residents” The ship is still sinking Bud.

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    • Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

      Why not support third party management? Because third party management doesn’t work! The FN bands don’t think so! The Auditor General of Canada doesn’t think so! The government’s own internal evaluations don’t think so! It is the government that is, once again, going down the wrong path – they know third party management does not work but it is still their “go to” solution. (see http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/third-party-management-can-wreak-havoc-on-first-nations/article2271392/page1/)

      Why does the government do this? To make it appear that the problems are the fault of the bands – to “spin” the problem. To fool Canadians into thinking that the government is actually doing something when in fact they have done less than zero. They killed the Kelowna Accord without any thought and they have done nothing to address these problems since.

      Chief Spence has welcomed and audit and is prepared to work with the auditor. Let’s wait until that audit is complete before finding anyone guilty, shall we?

      The government also goes on and on about $90 million over 6 years. Big deal. $90 million is peanuts. Just look at how easy it was for Tony Clement to spend $50 million of stolen tax money to buy a few gazebos.

      Please, try not to buy into the government propaganda.

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  5. Avatar of Carolyn Bennett Carolyn Bennett said on

    Bob has also been so effective on TV and radio… We as Liberals need to be able to articulate real facts … and feel comfortable convening real conversations in 308 ridings…. We did a roundtable on Aboriginal issues in St. Paul’s with the amazing Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux We hope to turn it into a ‘Roundtable in a box’ using the Library of Parliament doc that we posted on my website.. there are 99 more Attawapiskats…. Bob has shown there are real solutions…. beginning with the 18months of work that was done preparing for the Kelowna Accord….. Look forward to serious conversations at Convention on these issues….

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  6. Avatar of Ken Cunningham Ken Cunningham said on

    May i make a practical suggestion? Why can’t the govt provide bio/compost toilets for remote reserves that are presently dealing with the disgraceful necessity of using slop buckets? Good God this is the 21st century!
    I’m not sure which model would suit best in such circumstances[ in a cold climate], but those of you who have cottages are no doubt aware of what i’m talking about; they don’t smell, there’s nothing much left over but a form of peat moss which can be composted. I’ve seen decent models available for as little as a $1000 – obviously the govt could get a better unit price then that.
    This may even be a workable solution in really remote or very small communities, instead of or, ancillary to, smaller or communal septic fields.
    No one should have to deal with slop buckets as a primary source of sanitation in this day and age.

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  7. Avatar of Tracy Thompson Tracy Thompson said on

    The problems in Attawapiskat are really not that different from what I see in most (with the rare exception of a couple of bands in Canada)reserves. Why are we always taking the blame (or the present government)for the actions of people who fail to teach their children and children’s children how to look after themselves. Why are there no electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and other tradesmen and women in these bands? Why haven’t they used the money that is given to them regularly towards education so that they can help each other in their community? Why are the chiefs not able to use the 90 million dollars towards education of their own people. Why are they allowed to continually complain about their lot in life when so much is given to them. Do I feel bad for the babies that are cold and hungry? Yes, but mainly because I don’t see that this situation will ever change no matter what political party is in power because as long as the parents of those babies are never educated on how to work towards providing for their families and community they will all grow up to be just like their parents, waiting for a handout and not motivated to work for themselves and have self-respect and pride in themselves.

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  8. Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

    Plain and simple…scrap the Indian Act. It doesn’t work. After this many years the problems of our Aboriginal peoples are as bad as ever and getting worse. Why stick with something so deeply flawed. Time to move on.

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    • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

      I put it to you Martin, where do we go from here?
      Keep in mind that whatever solution you devise must include a scenerio where everyone must be treated IDENTICAL regardless of what Liberal governments will try to shove at us. Average Canadians don’t give a s**t about treaties. An agreement includes two parties and IDENTICAL is non-negotiable for the rest of Canada.
      If this cannot be achieved then we stay stuck for another 100 years. And we have many more Attawapiskats.

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      • Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

        I don’t claim to have a solution. I am not a member of parliament and I am not an aboriginal affairs expert. But, something needs to be done and so far in 6 years the conservatives have done nothing except kill the Kelowna Accord and replaced it with zero new initiatives and zero new ideas. All they do is blame and punish any who cry out for help.

        I’d say that instead of starting new talks with First Nations, Harper might want to actually read and understand the Kelowna Accord. It took 18 months to prepare, was agreed to by ALL the First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders. It had the support of the provinces and the federal government of the day. But for some reason, Harper and conservatives just let it die. Let’s start with that. Or, if the conservatives want to put forward another plan, of any kind, I’m sure the FN peoples would be happy to listen. But so far, nothing. Just blame and lies.

        I personally think we should look at replacing the outdated Indian Act. But again, I don’t see the conservatives moving on that. They’re too busy with important things like fighter jets and building prisons to care about Canadian citizens that are cold and hungry.

        By the way, I think you’re wrong. I think average Canadians do care about our treaties. I know I do. I know my friends and family do. We do care about living up to our commitments and we do care about helping ALL Canadians. At least the 61% of us who voted against the conservatives do. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ll bet there are more than a few conservative voters that care too.

        Paul Martin and the Liberals, with the provinces and the leaders of our aboriginal peoples, came up with a good plan, they had a vision. Harper killed it. The conservatives just don’t care.

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        • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

          Well we disagree on the treatie thing, that’s for sure. The world is getting more and more wired allowing Canadians a direct voice not one tainted by government. I have been on a ton of Attawapiskat forums lately and the OVERWHELMING sentiment would disagree with you. Please don’t tell me it’s only Conservatives on all these forums.

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          • Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

            Maybe I’m misunderstanding…you’re saying that “most” Canadians think we should just ignore our treaties? That means, most Canadians think the government should just break the law and and not honour our legal commitments…is that what you’re saying?

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            • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

              THAT IS 100% WHAT I’M SAYING.

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              • Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

                No need to shout.

                Well, I’d certainly like to see a poll that supports your contention that the majority of Canadians think the government should ignore all our treaties with aboriginal peoples, thereby breaking both our commitments as a nation and federal law – other wise, yes, I’d have say it must be something about the forums you choose to visit.

                Nice chatting with you – but I think I’m done here. Have a great holiday season.

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    • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

      Please be fair Martin, a band of 1800 people with 1 chief and 18 councillors- ridiculous. People in tents and a Zamboni is purchased- ridiculous. I do agree with you on one point, scrap the Indian act. Scrap the treaties. Scrap it all. Bring back Chretiens Whtie paper and find a strategy to assimilate. This is the only way.

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      • Avatar of Ken Cunningham Ken Cunningham said on

        “I do agree with you on one point, scrap the Indian act. Scrap the treaties. Scrap it all. Bring back Chretiens Whtie paper and find a strategy to assimilate. This is the only way”

        I’m sorry but you’re still not listening. The ’69 white paper was rejected at the time because it was seen as another form of assimilation, this time by the back the back door – essentially what you are arguing for; you can’t “make”anyone assimilate as the deadful history of our previous attempts to do so show. As i understand it most FN’s don’t want to assimilate, they want to retain their own culure; and the treaties and the constitution guarantee that for those who choose to remain true to their culture.

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        • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

          What exactly IS assimilation? I would put it to you that today’s Indian lives far closer to modern ways than to traditional roaming hunting/fishing ways. Indians are becoming assimilated whether they like it or not. AS a matrter of fact they would probably have a better shot at preserving traditional Indian culture by following a path like Quebec uses to preserve French. At this rate all Indian culture will be lost in a matter of a couple generations.

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          • Avatar of Ken Cunningham Ken Cunningham said on

            I don’t presume to have all the answers. In fact i’d much rather Aboriginal people speak for themselves.
            The principle problem as i see it with the word assimilate is complusion. “We” tell “you”how to assimilate…we presume, we don’t ask…what do you want? And how shall we go about it? So, it’s a question of consent – if they choose to leave their remote community and assimilate that will be their choice.
            On the matter of culture, why do you assume a culture must remain static. Similarly my German father in law was shocked to come over and find natives weren’t still choosing to run around in canoes; why would they? FN’s have always embraced new technology, that should be no surprise – they are no where near as sentimental about culture as we are.
            Perhaps assimilation is inevitable but they must choose the how and the when. I’m pretty sure they regard other factors as being important in maintaining their culture, such as lanuage, spirtual beliefs and connexion to the land, as being as important as hunting and fishing. Although going out on the land is not as prevalant as it once was it still continues. In fact the traditional practices of many FNs is currently in a state of revival.

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            • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

              From being roaming people to sedentary people in cities/reserves is not a small cultural change. It is massive.
              If they are embracing new technology and remaining sedentary then they ARE assimilating. So why the special status?
              Perhaps we need a new word for assimilation to make it more palatable to Indians – similar to how “Indian” became Aboriginal Canadian, Native Canadian, First Nation people. I do apologize, I am being facetious :)

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              • Avatar of Ken Cunningham Ken Cunningham said on

                The special status is i believe entrenched in the constitution and relected in treaty and landclaims soley because they are the first ones – one of the 3 founding peoples. Nothing will change that. Even if they all up and move to the cities they will never surrender their claim to the land. What looks like special treatment has a basis in historical fact.
                As for “assimilation” – you’re probably right. That word has nothing but negative connotations to FNs…it has become anathema to them in my experience. :)
                That’s not to say change isn’t necessary – clearly it is. We might start by respecting them as a founding people! Historically Canada has more then once owed them our very existence.If they disappeared we’d be that much poorer for it.

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      • Avatar of Martin Showell Martin Showell said on

        Well, I think I am being fair. I’m suggesting that we wait for the audit to be completed BEFORE we judge. What’s not fair about that?

        As far as the Zamboni….In a December 5th press release Chief Spence says the money for the ice-resurfacer (actually, not a Zamboni) came from community fundraising, NOT from the government. Again, I’ll wait for the audit. And why shouldn’t they be able to have houses, schools AND a hockey rink? That seems to be a “right” for every other Canadian.

        Are you aware that the government (by their own admission) provided less than $9,000 per person per year in Attawapiskat? Are you aware that the average (non-FN) Canadian receives close to $20,000 per year through government programs from the feds, the provinces and the cities? Does THAT sound fair?

        And finally, “assimilation”? Really? What are we, Borg? What if the First Nations people don’t want to be assimilated? Should we force them? That sounds like some good old fashioned colonialism and bigotry to me. “Resistance is futile!”. Why don’t we take their children away and put them in “residential schools” while we’re at it (oh, wait, we already tried that). Please.

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  9. Avatar of Susan Hemmerich Susan Hemmerich said on

    I wonder how much planning is done with native communities with decisions made for rather than with them. Also the point has been made that they are treated as a group rather than as individuals. I feel that they should be able to own their own homes or rent like everyone else does and have more real choices and opportunities. People without hope can’t achieve much.

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    • Avatar of Robert Laberge Robert Laberge said on

      I believe Indians can own their own home off reserve. Get a job, bank loan voila….Home. On reserve is another story. Unless the reserve has some economic base, whether someone owns or not is irrelevent. The house is still worthless. There are hundreds of homes in downtown Detroit nobody wants to own. Again, living where there are no jobs is useless.

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  10. Avatar of Andrei  Neacsu Andrei Neacsu said on

    Well, thank You for heading-up there Mr. Rae. I guess I tempted you after I showed you my photos from Attawapiskat, earlier this spring. I do wish You enjoyed your visit, considering the circumstances.
    Now, let’s see if anything will change because I certainly was not very happy when you said to me that “nothing much has changed in Attawapiskat” since your last visit there in the 80’s.
    I think we all must keep this issue on the table, so to speak. We must think and work on this persistently and consistently. The issues with Native Reserves in this country are many but they are not insolvable. We just need people willing to help – as opposed to useless attitudes, such as the one of Mr. John Duncan.
    Thank You for writing this and I do wish You will continue to speak-up, in regards to Aboriginal matters. Not many of your colleague MPs, are … which is quite shameful.

    All the best to You and the ones You love,

    Andrei N.

    P.S. Thanks for the visits at “Occupy Toronto” – was good to see You!

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  11. Avatar of Andrei  Neacsu Andrei Neacsu said on

    Well, thank You for heading-up there Mr. Rae. I guess I tempted you after I showed you my photos from Attawapiskat, earlier this spring. I do wish You enjoyed your visit, considering the circumstances.
    Now, let’s see if anything will change because I certainly was not very happy when you said to me that “nothing much has changed in Attawapiskat” since your last visit there in the 80’s.
    I think we all must keep this issue on the table, so to speak. We must think and work on this persistently and consistently. The issues with Native Reserves in this country are many but they are not insolvable. We just need people willing to help – as opposed to useless attitudes, such as the one of Mr. John Duncan.
    Thank You for writing this and I do wish You will continue to speak-up, in regards to Aboriginal matters. Not many of your colleague MPs, are … which is quite shameful.

    All the best to You and the ones You love,

    Andrei N.

    P.S. Thanks for the visits at “Occupy Toronto” too – was good to see You!

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  12. Avatar of Gérard Coté Gérard Coté said on

    May someone tell me what will be proposed at the coming convention in order to bring about better conditions for the Attawapiskats of Candada?

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