It's Not A Choice: Canada is Legally Bound to Provide Native Housing
by Susanna Kelley
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the housing disaster that continues to unfold unabated in Attawapiskat is why Canadians keep pumping money into First Nation reserves that seem doomed to economic failure.
"Why do we continue to allow aboriginals to keep just living on welfare up there, paid for by the Canadian taxpayer?" people puzzle, albeit mostly in private.
"Why don't aboriginals just move off those reserves and come down south where there are jobs and a better lifestyle?" many Canadians ponder.
It would be nice if it were that simple.
First of all, the overwhelming majority of reserve residents have not completed high school and have no place to work once they hit the urban south. And many fly in reserves don't have high schools. Would you like to send your 13-year-old to live 70 km. away for months at a time?
Many who do come to the cities end up in the sex and drug trade. They simply are unqualified to make a living other ways. Just take a walk down some of the worst streets of Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, even Ottawa, and you will see the sad results of that flight to the city.
Which is why many aboriginal people stay where they are, close to family and their community.
But what most Canadians don't know is that our nation is legally bound to provide housing, health care and education to aboriginals who live on reserves.
The federal government isn't just doing it out of the goodness of its heart.
The obligation comes from legally binding agreements made by treaty many years ago.
In return for agreeing to provide these things and relatively small "reserves" of land, non-natives were given the right to share land that had been traditionally inhabited by First Nations.
When you see the conditions on some of the reserves in northern Ontario, you can understand why, then, some First Nations believe the treaties have been abrogated in that regard.
Who is at fault for the sad shape some the reserves are in?
In truth, there is fault on both sides.
First of all, it is extremely expensive to build housing in a place where there is no road access. Materials must be either flown in by plane in the winter or brought in by boat in summer.
Secondly, the type of housing we are used to in the south just won't withstand the elements in places like Attawapiskat.
I've had the good fortune to visit a number of fly-in reserves in Ontario's north, including North Spirit Lake in the northwest and Moose Factory on the James Bay coast. I was there in all their frigid, - 30 degree February glory.
Frankly, I've never felt cold like that anywhere else. Just trying to shoot video for longer than 5-10 seconds with bare hands was impossible. My hands were not just cold in the way I'd feel it in southern Ontario, but in extreme pain such that I had to get my snowmobile mittens back on as quickly as possible. I lived in my snowmobile suit even indoors most of the time. And some of that was in the unique, well equipped and environmentally friendly Ecolodge built by the entrepreneurial Mocreebec in Moose Factory.
But I saw year-old houses with the siding falling off on some remote reserves. Many of the materials the government provides to builds houses there just don't work in those elements - plain and simple.
Mike Holmes, a housing renovator, explains the dilemma in this article:
Thirdly, whether or not it has been the case in Attawapiskat, there are suspicions federal funds have gone unaccounted for.
Making band councils more accountable for that money was the goal of the First Nations Governance Act brought in by Jean Chretien and his Indian Affairs Minister (and Métis) Robert Nault in the mid-1990's.
But the many chiefs that make up the Assembly of First Nations opposed the legislation. Chiefs lead the band councils that determine how the money is spent.
Paul Martin, upon winning the Liberal leadership and becoming Prime Minister, killed the legislation and demoted Mr. Nault.
On the other hand, federal officials have turned a blind eye to the situation on reserves such as Attawapiskat.
The desperate conditions are known to anyone who has visited them ... or who has done the least bit of research about them.
It is inconceivable that the federal government's officials charged with overseeing the health of the reserve did not know.
Recently, the Treaty 3 First Nations decided to take the federal government to court.
They have launched a lawsuit worth $100 million, charging the federal government has breached their right to education by funding native education at a lower per capita amount than non-native education.
They also want education provided locally, so their students don't have to move to cities and towns far away from their families and community.
Last week, the federal government took over management of Attawapiskat, and, along with the provincial government, is assessing what the needs are.
But really, how hard can it be to figure out?
People living without heat and electricity and plumbing need a warm place to stay and sanitary plumbing facilities - quickly, before disease moves in even more than it already has.
And in another seven long weeks, on January 24th, Mr. Harper will meet with Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Mr. Atleo says he's encouraged by Mr. Harper's commitment to meet.
It seems that's all both sides have been doing for a long, long time.
Meanwhile, the children get sicker.
You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley