When the housing crisis in Attawapiskat First Nation made headlines worldwide in October 2011 after the community declared a state of emergency, few had heard of the band’s chief, Theresa Spence. Now, because of a hunger strike she launched in the shadow of Parliament Hill, Spence has become a household name across Canada, and a symbol of the still-growing Idle No More movement.
And while housing was not the sole issue motivating her protest—in which she and several others vowed to continue their fast, pending a “satisfactory” outcome of a meeting between First Nation leaders with Prime Minister Harper and Governor General David Johnston—shocking living conditions like those on Spence’s home reserve continue to plague many Native communities across the country.
Efforts by the Red Cross, and emergency funding for housing repairs, have improved the most dire of Attawapiskat’s housing situations, but Spence and other leaders hope meetings with government can address the wider aboriginal housing crisis by resetting the treaty relationship with Ottawa, which they blame for underfunding housing and infrastructure across many First Nations communities.
But the government and conservative pundits point the blame for Attawapiskat’s situation squarely at the band leadership itself, saying that it mismanaged federal funds. On January 7, only days before a high-profile meeting between Harper and some aboriginal leaders, a government-commissioned audit of Attawapiskat’s finances was leaked to the media. It alleges that hundreds of band expenditures lacked documentation–the majority of which occurred before Spence was elected chief in 2010. Some commentators pointed out that the federal government can itself be criticized for fiscal management and leadership scandals.
Spence instantly dismissed the Deloitte & Touche investigation as a “distraction” from the core issues, but First Nations fiscal management came to overshadow the aboriginal-government meeting in the media. Spence and several major chiefs boycotted the meeting when the governor general—representing the queen–declined to attend.
The housing crisis on reserves is not isolated to Attawapiskat. Its neighboring reserve, Kashechewan First Nation, declared a state of emergency on November 23 over fuel shortages and 21 flooded houses without furnaces as the winter cold set in. “There are roughly 100 [aboriginal] communities in crisis state due to flooding, lack of water, sanitation, housing, lack of food,” Pamela Palmater, chair of Ryerson University’s Indigenous Governance program, says. “Every report—the Auditor General, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, recent medical data, coroners’ reports—says that our communities are in crisis.”
According to the 2006 census, the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, 29 percent of aboriginal peoples’ homes are “in need of major repair”—more than four times the percentage for non-Natives. That number had risen three percent from the previous census a decade earlier, while nonaboriginal conditions improved.
Housing conditions worsened for all aboriginals in Canada over those 10 years, but on reserves the declines were significantly greater. Those conditions include lack of insulation and running water, overcrowding and flooding. Michaëlle Jean, a former governor general, told CBC News that, “We have a Third World in Canada, and it’s with our aboriginal peoples.… There are situations I see in Haiti that are very similar to what I see in our aboriginal communities.”
Canada says that it has started to address this crisis. “Since 2006 our government has taken concrete action on priorities like health, education, economic development and housing for First Nations,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister John Duncan said in an e-mailed statement. “For instance, we have…invested in safe drinking water systems [and] built more than 10,000 new homes and renovated thousands more.… While we are making progress, we too are impatient to see more change that will benefit First Nation communities.”
Aboriginal Affairs—which is responsible for almost all aspects of aboriginal people’s lives—provides some financial support for on-reserve housing, according to its website. The department spends on average $155 million a year for on-reserve housing; over the past five years, it has, through collaboration with other agencies, has supported the construction of 1,750 new homes and nearly double that number of renovations.
“Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada does not cover the full cost of housing,” its website states. “The department does provide various forms of assistance to support the development of on-reserve housing. It is up to the First Nations and their community members to secure other sources of funds to meet their housing needs.”
But while the federal government’s response to the Attawapiskat emergency in 2011 was to seize control of the band’s finances and appoint a third-party manager—a decision later overturned and criticized by an Ontario judge—critics argue that many reserves’ housing crises can be blamed on broken federal treaties and continuing barriers to community economic development linked to federal aboriginal policies. “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation about federal funds if we had access to our land and resources and could support our own governments,” Palmater says.
That national conversation was started in December 2011 by Charlie Angus, the New Democratic Party politician representing Attawapiskat, who wrote on the Huffington Post that the reserve’s crisis was “Canada’s ‘Katrina’ moment.” Angus chastised the many Canadians who blame reserves for these crises, adding that the people of Attawapiskat had made the best of a bad situation caused by a broken federal-aboriginal relationship.
That situation, according to Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, was partly to blame for the controversial De Beers diamond mine nearby, which had faced community protests. When the company dumped sewage in 2005, flooding Attawapiskat’s basements, much of the damage to the houses was never repaired.
“The crisis became a cultural Pandora’s box that unleashed numerous issues and misconceptions regarding our relationship with Canada’s First Peoples,” Angus wrote in 2012. “Unlike some media reports that portrayed the Attawapiskat people as hopeless and hapless or habitual scroungers on the hard-pressed Canadian taxpayer [there was] incredible dignity of the community.”
Angus argued in 2011 that the housing conditions are the “inevitable result of chronic underfunding, poor bureaucratic planning and a discriminatory black hole” which have left First Nations far behind the rest of Canada—going to the reserve is “like stepping into a Fourth World,” he wrote.
“When it comes to the misery, suffering and even the death of First Nations people, the federal and provincial governments have developed a staggering capacity for indifference,” he added. “The indifference speaks volumes about the underlying reasons for this crisis. Such a state of affairs doesn’t just happen. The collapse in Attawapiskat can’t be blamed on bad local leadership, misplaced monies or the possibility that such communities are simply unsustainable. Attawapiskat is a community that has done its best to work with the meager resources provided by Aboriginal Affairs.”
As the Idle No More waves of protest continue to spread across the nation and across the globe—and government and critics argue about where the blame lies with Attawapiskat—Spence’s hunger strike has ensured that “Fourth World” living conditions on reserves remain a top issue. “The bigger picture—treaties and claims and self-government—is really important,” Palmater says. “But we can’t lose sight of what our people are living every day. How do we address the crises that we’re facing? We simply can’t afford not to do anything, because we’re losing our people in many different ways.”