Ottawa offers up to $2.5 million for Attawapiskat as Red Cross prepares to help

The federal government is promising $2.5 million in funding to alleviate the housing crisis gripping the northern Ontario First Nation community of Attawapiskat which medical experts say is putting the lives of residents in danger as winter approaches.

APTN National News
-The federal government is making available up to $2.5 million in funding to alleviate the housing crisis gripping the northern Ontario First Nation community of Attawapiskat which medical experts say is putting the lives of residents in danger as winter approaches.

The federal Aboriginal Affairs department has already committed $500,000, and an additional $2 million is on the table, according to an official. The department official said they are awaiting a proposal from the community.

“On the additional $2 million: We are in ongoing discussions with Attawapiskat First Nation, however, we have not received a proposal for new funding to date,” said department spokesperson Genevieve Guibert.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence told APTN National News that the Aboriginal Affairs officials told her during a meeting in Thundery Bay, Ont., Thursday that it would release the money once the community relays a housing assessment outlining what it needs. She said an assessment would be done in the next couple of days.

There was some initial confusion about whether Ottawa had actually offered the money.

Spence also said the Canadian Red Cross is planning to visit the community next week to do its own assessment on dealing with Attawapiskat’s immediate needs.

After a conference call involving Spence, and NDP MP Charlie Angus Wednesday evening, 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.

“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 later Thursday.

Liberal Aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett released a letter Thursday she wrote to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

Bennett said the $2.5 million was not enough to meet the deep rooted infrastructure problems that have been plaguing the community for years.

“I implore you to invest the needed resources on an urgent basis,” wrote Bennett. “As is your moral and legal obligation.”

A spokeswoman for the Red Cross said Wednesday 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 for the safety of 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.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Ottawa offers up to $2.5 million for Attawapiskat as Red Cross prepares to help

  1. I love how the government on one hand says it’s up to the community to spend the funds allocated, but the other hand says the council needs only be answerable to INAC. u00a0The problems atu00a0Attawapiskat today are two fold, mis-management and a lack of democracy. u00a0Any rez should be able to can their council for not providing their basic needs. u00a0Perhaps then a “proposal for new funding” would have come in long ago. u00a0Spending a few bucks on registered mail when sending such proposals and state of emergency notices will go a long way as well. u00a0One cant say it was lost in the mail that way.

  2. Our Government should feel ashamed that countries that are not as well off as Canada are offering to help. Maybe now they will fulfill their obligations to the First Nations people. How embarrassing to have a diamond mine so close to homeless people and the Government just sits on its a** and watches while others step in…suddenly they are offering money. Don’t think the world hasn’t noticed. u00a0

  3. Its good to see that people from all over the world want to help. More Canadians need to feel the same way. Kudos to those who do!nnThe government has to stop that finger pointing game, its getting old.u00a0

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