"People may die if nothing is done."

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The Attawapiskat First Nation community has endured Third World living conditions like this: a shanty with no running water and indoor plumbing. R. J. LERICH
The Attawapiskat First Nation community has endured Third World living conditions like this: a shanty with no running water and indoor plumbing. R. J. LERICH

The Canadian ecumenical justice group, Kairos, is seeking support for the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. The indigenous band, which declared a state of emergency as temperatures plunged in early November, has asked the federal government to consider a temporary evacuation of its community because of a lack of housing, heat, safe drinking water and other basic needs.

Many families have been left out in the cold or are living in tents, shanties and other makeshift shelters that have no heat or indoor plumbing.

“The federal and provincial governments must immediately release funds for safe housing and/or evacuation,” said Kairos in a statement. There must also be long-term funding to cover the construction of new homes, ensure a safe water supply and adequate sanitation and a school, the statement said. “Kairos believes that all Canadians support the basic human right to safe housing, health, education and clean water. Currently the people of Attawapiskat lack all of these.”

Kairos has urged Christians to include the rural community of 2,000 in their prayers, and to call or write federal and provincial officials to do something about the increasingly dire situation. “People may die if nothing is done. In a country as rich and as just as Canada, this is simply unacceptable,” said the Kairos statement.

In the 1990s, parts of the Attawapiskat First Nation were evacuated because of a severe sewage problem and contaminated water supply. Its grade school, which was built on contaminated soil, was also shut down. The school has not been rebuilt.

While the Third World living conditions of this community has shocked people in Canada and around the world, Assembly of First Nations chief Shawn-A-in-chut Atleo says this kind of life is common in many remote and northern communities. First Nations leaders have been urging the federal government “to work with us now on transformative change” that will include a fiscal relationship that will “ensure sustainability and stability.”

Under the Indian Act, funding for housing, health and education comes from the federal government. But disputes over funding responsibilities between the provincial, territorial and  federal governments have delayed financial assistance.

On Nov. 23, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario released an open letter urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to “put aside jurisdictional squabbles in the interests of preventing a humanitarian disaster in Attawapiskat.”

On Nov. 25, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan dispatched staff to assess the situation in Attawapiskat.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Red Cross has been working with public officials and Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence to identify and address short-term needs, such as heaters, insulated sleeping mats, blankets, winter clothing and generators. The Red Cross has also been asked by the community to provide support with donation management since it has been “inundated with offers of assistance,” said a press statement by John Saunders, provincial director of disaster management for the Canadian Red Cross in Ontario.

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