By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA--Federal Aboriginal Affairs officials travelled to Attawapiskat at least 10 times this year, including three times in October, but it appears none of these visits triggered any concerns with the department about the state of housing on the reserve.
The Conservative government announced Wednesday it would be immediately turning over the management of the community to an outside consultant following a visit by department officials who concluded the health and safety of residents there demanded immediate action. The department also has an engineer on site tasked with finding a way to get residents into warm and safe housing.
Several families are living in tents and in shacks with no running water as deep winter-like temperatures have begun to settle over this community of 2,000 on the shores of James Bay.
The living conditions in the community have been described as “inhumane” and “life threatening” by the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
About 90 people are also living in a large trailer that was donated two years ago by the mining company operating a diamond mine about 90 kilometres away.
The Canadian Red Cross has also intervened with supplies and managing donations and the situation has turned, according federal opposition parties, into a national scandal. The issue dominated question period Wednesday as both the NDP and Liberal interim leaders unleashed a barrage of questions against the government over the issue.
Yet the repeated visits by department officials to the community did not raise any concerns until this week.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan told the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee that department officials visited the community on Oct. 21, 25 and 31. He also said department officials visited the community on Sept. 2, July 12, July 7, July 2, April 12, May 19, and March 15.
“We’ve had people in the community for months and months dealing with the school construction and other things,” said Duncan, in response to questions from Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett.
The school is not scheduled to be completed until 2013, but it only came as the result of a persistent campaign by students there who were tired of attending classes in portable trailers. Their previous school was built on toxic land.
Duncan said the department only received the band’s state of emergency document last Thursday.
“When a First Nation wants to declare a state of emergency they do so in a format that reaches us, that did not happen,” said Duncan. “There was no state of emergency delivered. When we did receive it, it had no specifics attached to it.”
Duncan announced Wednesday during a heated question period over Attawapiskat that the community would be put under third-party management, meaning the chief and council would no longer be in control of the band’s finances which would be handled by a consultant.
Third-party management is the most extreme and intrusive step the department can take to deal with a band.
The Conservative caucus clapped in approval when Duncan made the announcement.
“On the ground assessment has determined that health and safety issues demand immediate action,” said Duncan. “We are placing the First Nation in third party management. We are also requesting a comprehensive audit.”
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence had been pleading for help from Ottawa and Ontario.
Spence now has no authority over the band’s financial management.
Fresh off a trip from the community, NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel led off question period with a call for the prime minister to visit the community and see for himself the dire situation facing the residents there.
“You should sleep in a shack with a sleeping bag,” said Turmel, during question period. “You will see that the sleeping bags provided by the Red Cross are not the solution. Where is the action? Where is the leadership?”
Harper brushed off Turmel’s call and said his government would be acting to fix the “management problem” in the community of Attawapiskat.
“This government has invested more than $90 million into this community since coming into office,” said Harper. “We will be announcing additional steps to deal with management problems in this community.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has championed Attawapiskat’s cause, accused the government of blaming the community for its woes.
“Their solution is to blame the community,” said Angus, whose riding includes the community. “Why is it when a First Nation community is in distress does this government’s response is contempt?”
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae also attacked the government for blaming Attawapiskat for its dire condition.
“The government that should be placed under this party management is the government across the aisle,” said Rae. “This government is all hat, no cattle.”
A recent audit of the community found irregularities in the band’s handling of its finances.
The July 31 audit found faulty record keeping on expenditures and accounts payable.
It also found, among other things, that money was being paid out from funds the community receives from the First Nations run Casino Rama without proper documentation or approval from chief and council.
The audit also found that the band was not putting together budgets on how it would spend its money throughout the fiscal year. It also found problems with how the community recorded its welfare payouts.
Spence has said that the $90 million the government has touted is spent on the community includes all the band’s services since 2006, a large portion of which goes to education.
Spence told APTN National News that it costs about $1 million to build four houses on the reserve.
De Beers, the mining company that operates the diamond mine near the community, paid $3 million for the trailer that is now flashing cross television screens as a symbol of the dire conditions in the community.