OTTAWA — A month after the First Nation community of Attawapiskat issued a cry for emergency help, outsiders are now flooding into the small James Bay reserve.
But solving the problems of substandard housing and lack of clean, running water will take more than visitors.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates that 126 out of 630 native communities across Canada have drinking water advisories right now, and some of those advisories have been in place for well over a year.
The AFN also says 80,000 new houses are needed in First Nations, while about 45 per cent of the existing housing stock is in need of major repair or should be condemned.
Attawapiskat is only the most severe and most recent example of First Nations communities crumbling under the weight of poverty.
“We need a commitment for a medium- and long-term solution” from the provincial and federal governments, the area’s NDP MP Charlie Angus said in an interview from Timmins, Ont.
“Again and again you see this is a community in handcuffs.”
A team of federal government officials landed in the fly-in community on Monday, as promised last week by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.
But they don’t come with solutions. Rather, they are looking for answers about why federal funding has not set the reserve on a stable footing, said Duncan’s spokeswoman Michelle Yao
“Officials from the department of Aboriginal Affairs are in the community today to investigate why conditions are as poor as they are, given the significant funding for housing, infrastructure, education, and administration,” she said in an email.
Ontario also sent a team to the reserve Monday under provincial emergency measures provisions.
Kathleen Wynne, the provincial minister for aboriginal affairs, said the Ontario team would be reporting to the feds.
“I’m glad that the federal government is now sending a team up there and taking the leadership role, which is quite properly theirs,” Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters Monday.
The Red Cross is also sending up a team on Tuesday, loaded with emergency supplies and helping the band deal with a sudden onslaught of donations and offers of help. A spokeswoman said $11,000 had come in this weekend alone.
The aid organization is coordinating donations, and will be arriving with winter sleeping bags and warm clothing of all sizes. A team of two will spend a couple of days assessing the needs of the families living in tents, and then move on to the families living in uninsulated huts, and then the entire community, said spokesman John Saunders in Timmins.
The grand chief of the regional Mushkegowuk council, Stan Louttit, is coming in on Tuesday.
And federal NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel is also flying in, along with Angus. The goal, says Angus, is to increase pressure on Ottawa to offer more help.
“We want to make sure the federal government gets serious about helping this community,” he said.
Angus says five families are living in tents and another 19 are living in uninsulated sheds with no running water, in conditions that are deteriorating rapidly given the onset of cold weather. Dozens more are living in an abandoned construction trailer, sharing only four bathrooms.
Sewage is being emptied into a ditch.
He fears sickness, or even death, if improvements are not made immediately.
The band is still trying to recover from its last emergency a couple of years ago, when sewage backed up into people’s homes and forced an evacuation. Angus said there was no government support for the evacuation, so the band ran up a sizeable debt to fly people out of the community and put them up in hotels.
Now, they’re trying to pay off the debt and have not yet been able to repair or replace the affected houses.