Tired of having their concerns fall on deaf ears, Attawapiskat leaders and members took to a Northern Ontario highway, bringing traffic to a halt, hoping their voices will finally be heard.
After being evacuated from their homes more than two weeks ago, about 90 residents of the coastal community are still being housed in hotel rooms in Cochrane. Having declared two state of emergencies already this year, Attawapiskat leaders say they are tired of receiving no help when it comes to the health and safety of community members.
Community residents decided to respond in the form of a peaceful protest held in the middle of Hwy. 11 W. in Cochrane.
“The first time we declared the state of emergency was in March because of the contamination with the school,” said Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall, “and neither level of government helped us bring our people out for their safety.”
The second declaration came last month after a sewage backup affecting eight homes displaced about 90 residents.
After the community was denied funding assistance to evacuate those residents, Hall said the band council decided to take matters into its own hands.
“They said no to helping us financially, so we decided to bring our own people out for their safety,” said Hall. “And now we want to make sure the public knows what we’re experiencing.”
Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Stan Louttit said the issues facing the far Northern community goes beyond the sewage issues, many of which are being faced in First Nation communities across the province. The issues also include the ongoing, decade-long fight for a new elementary school and claims that the community is still not seeing the benefits from having the De Beers Victor Mine on its traditional territory.
“There’s wealth being generated by that mine, the site community is nice and new with nice accommodation,” Louttit said, “but the people of Attawapiskat are still in a state of poverty.
“The infrastructure is not what it should be. The water and sewage are continually breaking down and there’s a severe backlog of housing, while the remediation of the old school that was torn down is taking a very long time.”
Louttit said the council and the community leaders are more than willing to sit down and face these issues with the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs, but it has been difficult getting a meeting with Minister Chuck Strahl.
“The minister who is in office right now is not very receptive, it seems, to our issues,” Louttit said.
“We met with him two years ago and were told Attawapiskat is not a priority.”
in In an e-mail to The Daily Press, Thomas Vares, INAC spokesman, said the ministry is committed to continuing to work with the First Nation to improve school infrastructure and housing.
“We recognize the public’s right to engage in peaceful protests,” Vares said about yesterday’s protest. “All Canadians are subject to laws of Canada and it is our expectation that respect for the law will prevail.”
Vares said the ministry has already provided financial aid to Attawapiskat to deal with various issues, including $1 million for a water and sewer repairs capital project. Vares added, however, the community itself is responsible for ongoing and day-to-day maintenance. He said according to the Attawapiskat emergency response plan, residents are to be accommodated within the community during an emergency, and INAC offered to provide the community with that assistance.
“However, Attawapiskat made the decision to evacuate these families,” Vares said. “INAC is providing additional funding to the First Nation to fix the homes and to provide temporary accommodation within the community.”
But Hall said the affected homes were not liveable and the only place in the community large enough to accommodate so many people had its own water and sewage issues.
“They will be going to the Healing Lodge, which is a large building,” Hall said. “But the water and sewage is not working properly.
“Work is being done, but at the same time we don’t have the financial resources to get it all done.”
She said living in this kind of environment has been stressful on the residents, but hopes yesterday’s information protest will help. Motorists who were temporarily halted by the blockade were provided with pamphlets and information about the issues affecting Attawapiskat.
“We want the government to give us enough money to repair the sewer system that breaks down,” Hall said.
“We want to make sure people are housed properly, where they know it is safe to live