OTTAWA — The federal government has agreed to a demand from Attawapiskat for 22 modular homes to bring some relief to the isolated native community that has become a symbol of the brutal plight facing many of Canada’s first peoples.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Sunday that Ottawa has purchased an additional seven homes on top of the 15 previously announced, bringing the cost of the pre-fabricated structures to $1.8 million
He added that Chief Theresa Spence also agreed to renovations to the community’s healing centre to temporarily house vulnerable residents until the homes arrive.
An official with the minister’s office said they hoped winter roads would quickly freeze so that the shipment of the pre-assembled homes can start sometime in January.
In a statement released Sunday morning, Duncan said wood stoves, composting toilets, plastic sheeting and other supplies were flown into the isolated Northern Ontario community Saturday.
“Our government is working to ensure the people of Attawapiskat have access to safe and warm shelter for the coming months,” he said.
Spence could not be reached for comment, but NDP critic Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the native community on the coast of James Bay, said the critical issue is who will wind up footing the bill.
“If the government is covering the cost then the community can start dealing with the other massive infrastructure problems, but if the community ends up paying for it through the third party manager, then they will not be any further ahead,” he said.
Angus said he is hopeful that government’s most recent concession can be the beginning of bringing relief to the impoverished community of roughly 1,800.
Speaking on CTV’s Question Period, Duncan said that Spence is co-operating with the third party manager the government has installed to look into the reserve’s affairs, and that he has paid for the homes.
Duncan’s press secretary, Moira Wolstenholme said in an interview that the homes would be paid by Ottawa from new funds. However, the government has told the third party manager to put any surpluses he finds in the band’s housing budget toward the homes.
Angus also questions Duncan’s characterization of the reserve’s relationship with the so-called third party manager, who was appointed after Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the band of mismanaging the $90 million transferred to the reserve in the past five years.
In an angry letter Friday, Spence said her council strenuously opposes the appointment of an overseer.
“Mr. Duncan, my council does not lack capacity . . . what we lack are funds,” she wrote the minister.
“My community will not consider third party managers nor pay for them out of our already depressed band support funding budget.”
Angus said Spence has agreed to an audit, but not to pay for a third party manager at a cost of about $180,000 that is to come out of the band’s administrative budget.
“The third party manager is like putting the community in handcuffs,” the MP said.
“It’s a punishment.”
The minister’s statement, however, states matter-of-factly that “Chief Spence has acknowledged the necessity of working with our government, the third party management team, and Emergency Management Ontario to get help to the residents of Attawapiskat.”
Duncan said the third party manager has been in place and will continue in his duties.
“The third party manager is not there to run the affairs of the first nation, (his) prime mandate is to take care of the urgent health and safety needs of the residents.”