In October of last year, the Cree community of Attawapiskat (as well as two other nations) declared a state of emergency. The village had once been relocated and supplied with cheap, overcrowded housing arrangements by the federal Canadian government. Despite claims by the government that Attawapiskat had received millions of dollars from the government to aid the community, today, these dwellings continue to be overcrowded and are quickly deteriorating.
It is estimated that 41.5% of all houses in Attawapiskat are in need of significant repairs. It is not uncommon to find the elderly, as well as infants, living in such ill-equipped housing. There are public housing facilities within the village, but they are overcrowded. These buildings have been described as prison-like and it has been said that a cell within these complexes is, in fact, smaller than an average Canadian jail cell. The individual dorms are locked each night to protect those living inside, which presents a threat in the event of a fire.
The crisis at Attawapiskat goes far beyond housing. Necessities such as food and clean drinking water (many houses do not have indoor plumbing) are not as easy to come by in northern communities. Goods are mostly flown in and the residents of these isolated areas must rely on outside sources for much of their food and other products. And while these things may be relatively easy to afford in other parts of Canada, prices in the North can be scandalous — for instance, a single bottle of water can cost up to $8.
The town’s primary school was found to be contaminated by a diesel leak in 2000. Going to school and receiving an education in Attawapiskat has been making the children sick. The people of Attawapiskat, including many of the children themselves, have been actively trying to create awareness and pressure the government into building a new school, which is finally supposed to materialize in 2013 according to the federal government.
The town of Attawapiskat lacks running water and proper sewage. Thus, it is extremely difficult to live in sanitary conditions in the town. Waste is regularly thrown outside. Mould is found within many of the houses, tents, and shacks in which community members live in. The overcrowding in Attawapiskat and the lack of proper hygienic facilities inevitably brings disease, both physical and mental. Respiratory problems, rashes, cancer, memory loss, and infections are just some of the many common physical problems in Attawapiskat as well as in other northern aboriginal territories. Suicide is becoming all too common, especially amongst the youth. This can no doubt be attributed to the long history of oppression these communities have faced, as well as the lack of hope the youth feel when living in such an isolated and neglected area.
In contrast to the desperation of Attawapiskat is the Victor Diamond Mine, owned by De Beers Canada and located just 90 kilometres west of the community. The mine is the wealthiest diamond mine in North America. Enormous amounts of money have been poured into the mine — as much as $1-billion by the government and another $167-million by aboriginal business partners. In 2009, it was named the “International Mine of the Year”, and brought in revenues of over $243-million. One would think that such an incredible concentration of wealth would trickle down to the local populations, as it has been argued by De Beers and the federal government.
Being in such close proximity to not only Attawapiskat, but other northern First Nations’ communities, a significant portion of their labour comes from these native populations. De Beers happens to have Impact and Benefit Agreements with the Attawapiskat Cree, as well as the Moose Cree, the Kashechewan, and the Fort Albany Nations. They also have a Work Relationship Agreement with the Tayka Tagamon Nation. In theory, this should benefit the residents of the different First Nations in the region:
“Most simply put, these negotiated, private agreements serve to document in a contractual form the benefits that a local community can expect from the development of a local resource in exchange for its support and cooperation. Their specific content varies, but typically they include provisions on royalties and/or profit-sharing, employment, wider economic development opportunities, and enhanced protection of environmental and socio-cultural amenities.” (IBA Research Network)
Whether or not this translates as such in practice is quite another story. It becomes apparent that the majority of the Attawapiskat residents do not see a cent from the profit being reaped. They may have many members of their nation working in the mine, but their standard of living has not improved since it has opened, as seen by the housing crisis in the town.
Mining also brings about other issues that will inevitably affect the local native and non-native population, including environmental consequences. The people of Attawapiskat and those working within the mine are those most susceptible, yet there have been accusations made by environmental and native groups that the federal government and DeBeers have not done proper research into the environmental consequences of mining in the area. One of the negative affects reported is mercury contamination of the land and water. De Beers claims that the mercury levels found in the area are naturally occurring and pose no threats to the local population’s health. However, to communities that still rely on hunting and fishing (and have the right to do so), improper research into the environmental and human can be deadly.
When he was confronted with the housing emergency, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted to deflect criticism by stating that Attawapiskat had received $90-million in government funding and that any crisis on the reserve was due to mismanagement by the community. Not only was this incorrect, but it was also a damaging and unfair thing to say. What Harper refused to say was that the $90-million sum was the total given since 2006, a period of five years — in other words, the average yearly funding to Attawapiskat was only $17-million. This amount was supposed to fund everything on the reserve — education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure, etc. The fact of the matter is that government funding is spread so thin that very little is able to be allocated to housing, let alone any of the other services desperately needed by the community. To cover Attawapiskat’s housing needs, alone, are estimated to cost $84-million. This lack of funding by the government helps to explain why reservations like Attawapiskat are generally in such horrid conditions.
Mismanagement of funds can occur in indigenous communities, largely because most band councils are artificially-created bodies, imposed on Native peoples by the federal government. Most often, these councils have nothing in common with the traditional leaderships of the nations and have little accountability to Native residents.
But, this is certainly not the case with Attawapiskat. By accusing the council at Attawapiskat, the federal government is trying to deflect attention from the real roots of the crisis — the lack of adequate funding by the federal government and De Beers’ pocketing all of the profit from the Victor Diamond Mine. The arguments made by the ruling class are simply blaming the victim and creating anti-native sentiment among the non-native population. It is quite disgusting that the same government that was forced to apologize for the crimes committed by the residential school system should conduct itself in such a manner and rely on the Indian Act to exploit the native population. The cost of living on these reserves is so high, yet the price of these people’s lives is worth so little to Mr. Harper and the owners of De Beers.
The deplorable housing conditions witnessed at Attawapiskat is in no way unique; in fact, there many similar reservations across Canada. One would be hard-pressed to find a First Nations community that is not overcrowded and devastated by poverty. The aboriginal peoples of Canada are in no way strangers to exploitation by the Canadian government either.
Across Northern communities, many new development projects are underway. Previously neglected, many of these communities are now very appealable targets for developers and bankers. Native and Inuit communities have been lured in with promises of development and prosperity but in the vast majority of cases, this has not come to pass. Very few indigenous people have had their lives improved. While a select few have prospered, most aboriginal communities have had to face relocation, contamination of water supplies, contamination of fish and animals relied upon for food, and an overall disregard for native rights.
Clearly, something must be done, not only in Attawapiskat but in all First Nations and Inuit territories. Capitalist plans for developing the north have had no major impact on improving the living standards of the original inhabitants of this country, who are often employed to work in these dangerous jobs or forced to deal with the environmental consequences of development run amok. Development of the North should involve the people affected. Any development should involve native communities, and seek to better the lives of indigenous peoples, provide protection for their environment, and provide good jobs and opportunities for these impoverished communities. We need proper management within our workspaces, within our native and non-native communities, by those who know best — the workers. But workers’ management is not just about workers’ control of just one mine (although this would definitely be an accomplishment) — it needs to extend to all aspects of society. What is necessary is democratic control over the resource industry to the benefit of surrounding communities and society as a whole.
The present system provides no opportunities and no hope for scores of Northern communities. It is no wonder that suicide can often seem to be the only form of escape. Let us fight for a socialist model of development that provides the residents of communities such as Attawaspikat with decent jobs, accessible health and education, adequate food, and quality housing.