(Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo on Thursday. APTN/Photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–With cries of political outrage over the Attawapiskat crisis still echoing off Parliament Hill’s sandstone walls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited television cameras into his wood-panelled office before his meeting with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo Thursday to announce a “historic” gathering between his government and First Nations leaders.
The prime minister, sitting on a leather armchair, said he was hoping the Jan. 24 meeting in Ottawa would offer a chance to discuss the many challenges and opportunities of First Nations people. Atleo sat next to him on a couch beneath a portrait of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald.
“I look forward to that, not only to look at the many challenges that confront First Nations, but also some of the opportunities that First Nations have and some of the opportunities that Canada has for First Nations people,” said Harper. “It is something I hope to be historic.”
Atleo did not mention the word Attawapiskat, but responded by highlighting the government’s 2008 residential school apology and its decision to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Atleo said he hoped the government would seize the moment the meeting offered to create a new relationship with First Nations.
“All of us inherited a very difficult task and discussions and conversations in recent days have highlighted that this is perhaps a moment that we grasp, that we seize this opportunity,” said Atleo. “That this government can grasp this moment to work with First Nations so we can begin to look forward to supporting the unleashing of the potential of our young people, the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population.”
The gathering will feature meetings between a delegation of chiefs and government cabinet ministers and include discussions on a wide array of topics including education, treaties, land claims, self government and economic development.
The gathering will open with a ceremony and speeches by the prime minister and First Nations leaders. The event will be broadcast live on the Internet.
Chiefs not able to attend will also be able to participate from 10 regional video conferencing stations.
The meeting has been months in the works, but the announcement came as the political fever pitch over the housing crisis in Attawapiskat was hitting a crescendo.
Images of children and elders living in shacks with no insulation, tents and packed into a trailer donated by a mining company have been flickering on television screens across the country.
The story of Attawapiskat, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay in northern Ontario where people live without running water and use the bathroom in buckets, has sparked a national debate over the state of First Nations communities in the country.
Some of Attawapiskat’s residents in the most dire housing situations are expected to be moved into the community’s arena and healing centre for temporary accommodation as deep winter like temperatures grip the community.
A little over two hours before Harper and Atleo’s meeting, the NDP and Liberals opened their question period assault on the government with Attawapiskat.
The prime minister and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan stuck to their defence that the dire housing conditions in the community were the result of faulty band management.
Attawapiskat has been put under third-party management, meaning a consultant is now in charge of administering the band’s finances.
“The prime minister’s response to the crisis in Attawapiskat is unbelievable. What the people there need is heating, housing and running water, but instead the prime minister is sending accountants and auditors,” said NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel. “Does the prime minister realize that with this third-party management the message he is sending (is that) if you need help, shut your mouth or you’ll be punished?”
Harper responded by repeating his government’s line of defence, that the community had received $90 million since 2006 and that the housing situation was the result of faulty administration.
“The government is responding actively and immediately to the needs of these communities,” said Harper. “Not just now, but over the past five years the government has invested $90 million to the community of Attawapiskat. Obviously a large part of our responsibility is to ensure these funds fully benefit the people in these communities.”
Attawapiskat’s band council issued a statement saying the community had received $94 million over six years and it amounted to under $10,000 for each of its 1,800 residents every year.
The band says only about $6 million had been spent on housing over the past six years.
The rest of the money has been spent on services like education and child care, the band said.
“My people deserve dignity, humane living conditions, for that our community asked for the assistance from my fellow citizens,” said Chief Theresa Spence in a statement. “For our simple request for human dignity, the government’s decision was to impose a colonial Indian agent.”
On Wednesday, an Aboriginal Affairs official interrupted a meeting of the community’s emergency team and handed Spence a letter indicating she was no longer in charge of the band’s administration
Some Attawapiskat residents, however, told APTN National News reporter Ossie Michelin that they were glad with the change.
One resident said they were concerned about what was happening to money that came from the impact benefit agreement Attawapiskat had with De Beers, which runs a diamond mine 90 kilometres from the community.
“I’m concerned about where the money is,” said Greg Shisheesh. “This past October it was $13.5 million. I just found out the other day there’s only $8 million in the trust fund and I want to know where the rest of the money is, $5.5 million.”