Attawapiskat: A ‘Homeland’ at the Crossroad

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

The road to Attawapiskat is not paved. When there is a “road,” it is made of ice and runs atop a frozen James Bay. For the 2,000 Cree aboriginals living in the fly-in Ontario community, winter means access to the rest of the world.

But the frigidity also means school-aged children wearing diapers to bed so they do not have to relieve themselves outside. It means pink Fibreglas insulation, albeit rife with black mould and bursting from the seams of condemned houses, is all that much more important.

“Despite our challenges, the bulk of us will say we don’t want to be anywhere else,” said Stan Louttit, the Grand Chief representing seven Cree communities in Northern Ontario, including Attawapiskat. “We’re close to our rivers, close to our fish, close to our moose, close to our geese, close to the burial grounds where our grandparents were buried.”

But the community is also far from a hospital with a full-time doctor, far from a school not built of temporary portables, far from a supermarket where milk and potatoes cost a third of the price charged at the local general store and, perhaps most important, it is far from economic centres and the jobs they offer.

And so it is far from prosperity, far from wealth and the security many Canadians take for granted. The images emerging from far-flung Attawapiskat, where the band council announced a state of emergency more than a month ago, show a desperate community in need of immediate attention. But even if the housing crisis is somehow solved in the short term, will this community, and the dozens of remote reserves struggling just the same, ever be truly viable in the long term?

The federal government has already given the Attawapiskat band council $90-million since 2006, not including the $500,000 recently pledged for urgent home renovations. The province also invests more than $4-million each year, and the community earned more than $3-million from the First Nations-run Casino Rama, according to a federal audit.

On Wednesday, the federal government ordered Attawapiskat under third-party management amid speculation of financial disarray. But to band members, the one thing neither the government, nor anyone else, can ever take from them is their land.

“It is their homeland,” Grand Chief Louttit said from Attawapiskat, which is 500 kilometres northeast of Timmins and where temperatures are already plunging to -20 C.

But should an attachment to that particular parcel of geography — one apportioned through an artificial reserve system created long ago by a federal government seeking to warehouse aboriginals before assimilating them — trump the provision of the basic needs of children? The sick? The elderly? Can a remote, fly-in community like Attawapiskat really be expected to maintain its traditional land-base but still manage a decent quality of life, let alone the modern conveniences other Canadians enjoy?

Traditional indigenous teachings ask those living today to respect the “seventh generation” by considering the interests of those not yet born. That notion emerges most often in the environmental context, but some argue the concept can, and very much should, be applied to poverty and hopelessness.

“Those communities really shouldn’t exist,” said Frances Widdowson, author of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation. “These remote communities are seen as homelands, where economies can be built to support the population. But that’s just not possible, and it’s not going to happen. You can’t say, ‘They should continue to exist because they’ve always existed.’”

Prof. Widdowson, who teaches political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, does not suggest up and moving a community like Attawapiskat to a city. That would “just be another horror story where you have a ghettoized population who is extremely alienated from the town,” she said. Instead, residents in what she calls “artificial communities with no ties to economic activity in Canada” should first receive intensive social services — health, employment and education, for example — to prepare them for such a move.

But ask Grand Chief Louttit or Grand Chief David Harper, who represents 30 northern Manitoba communities, and such suggestions are met with contempt and suspicion.

“Our kids were taken from their land, forced to lose their culture and languages,” Grand Chief Harper said. “We’re not the problem. We sustain ourselves, we’ve lived for generations, and we’ll live for the next hundreds of years.”

“[Relocation] is a ridiculous idea,” Grand Chief Louttit said. “It’s saying, ‘Let’s move these people to somewhere near Timmins and get them off their territory, and in the meantime let the mining companies lay claim to all that.’”

That distrust almost certainly flows from the legacy of colonization and residential school, which make any frank discussion about the failed Indian Act system far more emotional than logical.

Alan Pope, as the government-appointed author of a 2006 report focusing on the shocking circumstances in Kashechewan — where the drinking water was contaminated with E. coli bacteria and where flooding forced the community’s evacuation three times in 15 months — suggested the Ontario community relocate close to Timmins. He made headlines by not simply advocating new money.

The community entertained a relocation proposal, which would have seen members retain access to their traditional territories, but Kashechewan ultimately resolved to stay put. This past September, aboriginal leaders there joined Attawapiskat in declaring a state of emergency.

Over the years, “relocation” has become a dirty word, and is hardly synonymous with success so far. But wherever it has failed, it failed at least partly because the new location ended up being just as remote as the original, or because the root problems of unemployment, mental-health issues and addiction were never properly addressed. Wherever the community went, misery followed.

Last year, the Manitoba government apologized for its role in moving the Sayisi Dene community from Duck Lake to what proved deplorable conditions in the northern Manitoba city of Churchill back in 1956. The relocation stemmed from the government’s false assumption the families were over-hunting caribou, and many Dene ended up returning to their traditional hunting grounds some 20 years later.

Ottawa had promised in 1996 to relocate the Innu of Davis Inlet, in Newfoundland and Labrador, after a house fire killed six children while their parents were out drinking, and after a video turned up on newscasts of children there sniffing gasoline, screaming they wanted to die. It cost $160-million to move 50 families to the newly built northern community of Natuashish, which is only accessible by water or air.

The relocation took six years, and reports of gas-sniffing abuse surfaced shortly after.

Aboriginal Affairs did not respond to questions asked Tuesday about whether the federal government would consider funding a relocation for Attawapiskat, should the community consider such a move.

Not only do discussions of relocation or urbanization reflexively alarm many aboriginals, but First Nations have developed a strong kinship with their reserve land — even if historically they, like many non-natives, moved around in pursuit of economic opportunity.

“In traditional times, if there weren’t resources in one area, you’d move to where there were resources,” said Manny Jules, head of the federal First Nations Tax Commission and a former longtime chief of the Kamloops Indian Band. “But the reserve system brought an attachment to land. When people look at what they’ve got, they’ve got very little and they don’t want to let it go.”

The demand from First Nations leaders, in many cases, comes back to money — more freedom to spend federal dollars and a slice of the resource wealth flowing from their traditional lands.

The truth is, though, that some are holding onto locations that have little hope of ever achieving a quality of life most Canadians would regard as acceptable.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada categorizes Canada’s reserves into four zones — Zone 1 is the most readily accessible and Zone 4 is the least accessible. Zone 4 communities are the most risk-prone when it comes to water issues, and a 2010 report on education says scores for elementary and secondary schooling “decreased the further away people lived from a service centre.”

Two separate, independent studies presented to the federal department in recent years analyzed so-called “community well-being” by zone, and found that Zones 3 and 4 consistently scored lowest. A June 2011 report by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards found that special access communities — those with no year-round road access to a service centre — had the lowest average earnings per employed worker, the lowest high-school graduation rate, and the lowest percentage of people with a certificate or diploma.

The study, which used 2006 data and looked at 312 reserves across the country, reported that high school was the highest level of education for 10.5% of aboriginals living in a fly-in community. Only 1.7% had a university bachelor’s degree, and the average earnings — at roughly 18,000 annually — was the lowest of all the zones studied.

Tyler Anderson / National Post files

“Our kids were taken from their land,” says Grand Chief David Harper, who represents 30 northern Manitoba communities. “We’re not the problem. We sustain ourselves.”

Some remote communities suffer from unemployment rates as high as 90%. Suicide rates are high across reserves in general, but some of the remote ones such as northwestern Ontario’s Pikangkikum First Nation, with a population of 2,400, suffer losses in the order of six suicides in just two months.

“I can’t say every single fly-in community is doomed to fail, but I do think they face challenges more difficult than even [those faced by] the average First Nations community,” said Joseph Quesnel, a Frontier Centre policy analyst and author of the 2010 report entitled Respecting the Seventh Generation: A Voluntary Plan for Relocating Non-Viable Native Reserves. “The most isolated communities should have a mature conversation about what options they have.”

Manitoba’s Lake St. Martin, which has flooded basically every year for the past half-century, is having precisely that sort of conversation. Ottawa, the province and local chiefs are reportedly looking for a place to move the community of 600 people, after a federal official said there is no sense in rebuilding a community hard-hit by flooding this spring.

Mr. Jules, who believes private property rights are the first step toward a long-term solution, said if nothing changes, it will take somewhere between 200 and 800 years to solve a housing backlog pegged between 20,000 and 80,000 depending on who is asked. That, he said, is unacceptable.

It is unacceptable if it means the sick will continue to suffer, the addicted will continue to drink and sniff, and families will continue to shiver come winter.

If Prof. Widdowson has it her way, the government will provide enough social services to on-reserve aboriginals that they will be equipped and willing to move to places that have an economic reason to exist. At that point, remote communities — and the rest of the reserve system — will “wither away.”

Mr. Quesnel would not wait so long, and has suggested non-viable communities that have exhausted their options relocate elsewhere. The government could also incentivize aboriginals to move to cities by offering housing, employment, and psychological services for a finite period, he said.

“We have to start thinking differently, we have to start imagining a world that’s different,” Mr. Jules said. “We need to come up with 21st-century solutions, not 19th-century solutions. The Indian Act robs us of that imagination, and I don’t want to condemn another generation to poverty.”