the blame game

When it comes to Attawapiskat, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus makes a good point. A very good point. When disaster strikes Canadian communities, Ottawa does not generally blame the community.

When it comes to Attawapiskat, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus makes a good point.

A very good point.

When disaster strikes Canadian communities, Ottawa does not generally blame the community.

It hasn’t blamed Slave Lake administrators, police or fire officials after arsonists burned down 30 per cent of the 7,000-person town, at a cost of nearly $700 million.

So why is the leadership of Attawapiskat being treated differently?

This week, Ottawa announced it was revoking the job of managing the remote Ontario town’s finances from the First Nation government.

The Red Cross dispatched aid to the citizens, many of whom are living in ramshackle plywood shacks without adequate heat and running water, or tents with wood-burning stoves.

Ottawa is sending accountants. And it will review how the roughly $18-million annual budget has been spent since 2006.

The living conditions found in this Cree settlement in the wilds of Ontario are terrible. But they are far from unique.

The causes of the problems are deep and complex, rooted in Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal Peoples. And the solutions are similarly difficult to grapple with.

You have a largely uneducated population, scarred by the residential school debacle and federal policies of assimilation, eking out a life far in the bush.

Attawapiskat is built in a questionable place, an area prone to flooding and dampness. Water pools and flows into houses and, in the constant dampness, mould thrivess.

As well, two years ago the sewage system malfunctioned, and waste backed up into basements, ruining many houses.

Government, federal or provincial, failed to provide adequate assistance.

So, here we are, with hundreds of people living in squalor in the North.

In fairness, dealing with this problem will be expensive. But probably less so than Slave Lake.

In Attawapiskat, home to almost 2,000 people, the cost of building a simple home exceeds $250,000. To meet current demand for housing, more than 250 units must be built. The back-of-napkin estimate is about $70 million, about one-tenth what it will cost to fix the damage in Slave Lake.

Ottawa, shamed by international media coverage of Attawapiskat, recently pledged $500,000 in emergency funding.

But housing isn’t the only problem.

There has been no proper school in the town for 12 years. The original structure had to be abandoned because it had been built on the site of an oil spill and the children were exposed to dangerous levels of benzene.

Ontario has a responsibility to educate the province’s children. It asserts the children of Attawapiskat are a federal responsibility.

Caught in this bureaucratic dustup, the children have essentially been abandoned for more than a decade.

Federal officials are not rushing to investigate the cause of this problem.

Ottawa once considered moving the whole community south, but abandoned that plan.

The province has made no building lots available in the town. And the Indian Act complicates the issuance of mortgages on a reserve. So there is little private development here.

This has also hobbled the town. How does it grow or prosper with rules such as this?

And some would argue the town, a fly-in bush community, has no source of economic development or revenue. These days, they would be wrong.

It sits near one of the largest and most lucrative diamond mines in Canada, owned by De Beers. The mine is built on Cree land.

But the Cree settlement has seen little benefit from the mine in its backyard.

Sure there is a pledge from the company to train and hire local labour.

But, as noted, well-paid skilled workers can’t get land to settle near the minesite. Infrastructure is so bad poor development is hobbled anyway.

And who would invest in a shantytown so long neglected by both the province and the federal government?

It needs to be noted Ontario recently raised mining royalty rates. It now collects 11 per cent from De Beers production, up from nine per cent. None of this diamond money flows to the community for infrastructure or development, according to Angus, the area’s MP.

However, Ottawa does fund the community. It has provided a little less than $20 million a year since 2006. Much of this money has been spent sending school children off reserve, according to community leaders.

But a 2010 audit suggested there was improper local oversight of housing projects. And Ottawa itself failed to track housing projects.

Now the Harper government is wondering why things aren’t better for all its generosity.

Why indeed?

Ottawa’s accountants will identify where the money went.

But it’s clear the problems in this aboriginal town, like many others in Canada, go far deeper than that.

Solving them will take far more than sending in the suits to ferret out blame.

In the end, its clear there’s more than enough to go around.

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