By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Canadian Red Cross is expected to intervene in the crisis gripping the northern Ontario First Nation community of Attawapiskat where families live in tents, others in shacks with no running water and human waste is dumped from buckets into ditches.
The Canadian arm of the international aid organization agreed to step in to find short-term help for the impoverished, fly-in community of 2,000 people currently grappling with a severe housing shortage, said NDP MP Charlie Angus.
The Red Cross agreed to get involved during a teleconference this evening with the chief of the community, the grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council and Angus.
Angus said Ontario and Aboriginal Affairs officials refused an invite to participate.
“With the Red Cross stepping in now, we hope to start coordinating a short-term response, while the larger, medium to long term response will take place once we bring the other parties (Ottawa and Ontario) to the table,” said Angus, whose riding of Timmins-James Bay includes the community.
More details about what the Red Cross intervention would entail are expected to be released Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the Red Cross said earlier in the day that the organization was considering stepping in to help Attawapiskat, but first wanted to determine what role the community wanted it to play.
“We are definitely in communication and figuring out what role we can play in terms of support and immediate need,” said spokesperson Tanya Elliot.
With temperatures dropping as winter approaches over this northern Ontario community that sits where the Attawapiskat River meets James Bay, community leaders fear death looms for the residents here who are being forced to live in conditions that have been described as “inhumane.”
Children are already suffering from illnesses and high fever and the flu is starting hit, said Monique Sutherland, the housing manager for the community.
“It is getting scary where the temperatures are dropping every week and we are getting nervous,” said Sutherland, who lives in a two-and-a-half bedroom trailer with six other people.
Sutherland’s oldest son was forced to live in a shack because there was no more room.
The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty asking both levels of government to immediately intervene.
“We are deeply ashamed that federal and provincial officials are pointing fingers at each other and refuse to take responsibility, particularly as children and elders of Attawapiskat face life-threatening conditions as winter approaches,” said the letter, dated Wednesday. “As nurses, we are profoundly concerned about the dangers of fire, freezing, infectious diseases, skin conditions and mental health challenges that arise when people are forced to live in inhumane conditions.”
Angus said the situation in Attawapiskat, which sits about 90 kilometres away from a diamond mine, is a “national disgrace.”
Angus, who has posted a YouTube video depicting the dire situation facing the community, said he’s received calls and emails from people all over the world offering money and aid for the community, including from Haiti.
Angus said his office does not have the capacity to coordinate the international offers of help and hopes this would be one of the jobs the Red Cross would take on.
He said his office has received offers from Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
“I’ve never seen such a response, we can’t keep up with it,” said Angus. “An aid worker in Haiti has even called.”
For weeks, the community, which declared a state of emergency, has been pleading for help, but all the federal Aboriginal Affairs department has offered is $500,000 to get the five families living in tents into some type of housing.
The numbers in this community paint a stark picture: 19 families live in shacks with no running water; 122 families live in condemned housing; 96 people live in one industrial-sized trailer and 268 new houses are needed immediately.
Many residents, including the elderly and children, are using the toilet in pails that are then dumped into ditches.
Sutherland said she’s been monitoring one shack with no running water that is home to a month-old baby girl.
“I feel that we are being ignored,” said Sutherland.
No officials from Aboriginal Affairs have visited the community, but a meeting is scheduled between department representatives and Chief Theresa Spence for Thursday in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The federal department refused a request for a telephone interview about the situation, but issued an emailed statement in response to the Red Cross’ involvement.
“Our focus is to move forward by addressing current challenges with housing in the community,” said the emailed statement.
In a previous emailed statement, the department said it has never received an official copy of the declared state of emergency.
The department said it has given Attawapiskat $9 million since 2004-1005 in direct funding for housing projects like construction and renovation.
Between 2004 and 2008, the department said it had given $4.5 million in major capital funding for the development of service lots in a new subdivision.
The community has even received $450,000 under the Conservative government’s “Economic Action Plan” for renovating houses on the reserve, the department said.
“First Nations are responsible for allocating their own housing funds, including decisions on the number of new units they may decided to build, according to the priorities and needs of the community,” said the emailed statement.
Sutherland said 25 houses have been built since 2008. She said the band has also been forced to redirect some of its other funding to things like education.
“It’s just not enough,” said Sutherland.