Great strides have been made in upgrading the inadequate housing conditions in Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario, meaning many families are no longer living in shacks or tents, said Fr. Rodrigue Vezina, pastor at Saint-Francois Xavier parish. Photo courtesy of True North Aid

Binding Attawapiskat’s wounds

By 
  • December 9, 2012

For MP Charlie Angus, the important part of the Good Samaritan story is that the Good Samaritan came back. He didn’t just bind up the traveller’s wounds and go on his way.

He returned to pay off any remaining debts and make sure the traveller was healed.

Angus would like to see the same thing happen in Attawapiskat — the Northern Ontario Cree village that hit headlines a year ago when it declared a state of emergency to deal with inadequate housing. The isolated town near the western shore of James Bay saw many of its residents living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity or indoor plumbing, despite the $90 million in federal government funding directed to the reserve over the previous four years.

“That’s the moment when the charity response is necessary. When somebody is wounded by the side of the road, you bind their wounds,” said Angus, the MP for the area. “Then afterwards you find out — hey, wait a minute, why was this person mugged?”

The charitable response to Attawapiskat’s housing crisis was nothing short of magnificent, said Oblate Father Rodrigue Vezina, pastor of Attawapiskat’s Saint-Francois Xavier parish.

“With the 22 houses there, oh boy, it makes a big difference for the families there. Instead of living in a shack or a tent, they have a room where they are secure,” Vezina told The Catholic Register.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada shipped the 22 mobile homes north from New Brunswick in response to Attawapiskat’s emergency. It was then up to charitable organizations to help furnish the new homes.

Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Ontario contributed $30,000 to buy everything from heaters to beds to food. It was all trucked north by True North Aid, an NGO working in northern native communities set up by the Bill Prankard Evangelistic Association 40 years ago.

St. Vincent de Paul members hope to be the Good Samaritan who returns, said Ontario president Jim Paddon.

“We anticipate maintaining a strong collaboration with Attawapiskat and hopefully other First Nations,” Paddon said.
He also hopes to deepen the partnership between the Vincentians and True North Aid. He will be meeting with True North officials to discuss future plans in January.

There is a danger of a shallow, one-time charitable response, said George Woodward, True North Aid’s director of development.

“That does soothe the conscience. We’ve all been there. I’m not trying to point the finger,” he said.

Long-term solutions to long-term problems are “a whole different world,” he said.

In a community where 72 per cent of the boys and 66 per cent of the girls never finish high school, there are problems that can’t be solved by boxing up old winter clothes and shipping them north, said Woodward. But that doesn’t mean charity is the wrong response.

“In the middle of all this there are hurting families, hurting people, people who are destitute and going without. That’s really where we come from,” Woodward said.

True North is trying to encourage Attawapiskat’s kids to place their hope for a better future in education. Woodward sent 125 backpacks full of school supplies to Attawapiskat’s school last winter with vouchers good for $250 upon graduation from high school. It’s not that $250 is a big contribution to post-secondary education, but the voucher comes with a promise to help in getting access to scholarships, bursaries and other aid.

“It’s a very small step in looking at the overall problem,” he said.

There are other small steps being taken, said Vezina. The pastor has parishioners taking heavy equipment courses that will qualify them to work at the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat. The band has also organized a company that provides cooking and cleaning services to the mine.

“That’s native people from Attawapiskat who organized that,” said Vezina.

The outpouring of generosity from Canadians also gave local people a sense that they matter to the rest of the country, the pastor said.

“They have more confidence in themselves. It’s nice to see.”

Angus is convinced the Attawapiskat housing crisis was a turning point for Canada’s relationship with remote native communities.

“Attawapiskat was a real watershed moment for Canadians. For the first time people really saw we had Third-World Haitis here in Canada, and people were really shocked and upset,” he said.

The outpouring of generosity for Attawapiskat hasn’t changed the basic reality for isolated northern communities.

Almost exactly a year after Attawapiskat declared its state of emergency, the Kashechewan First Nation next door has declared its own state of emergency because it faces a two-month shortage of fuel and 21 houses were not fit for winter habitation.

The long-term solutions are going to require more than an emergency response, said Angus.

“(Attawapiskat) was a moment of Kairos. Unfortunately there was not the political will to take that moment up,” he said.
One thing Canada can count on is the determination of the Cree to seek a better future.

“At the end of the day, there’s such a sense of hope that keeps these communities going. Their faith absolutely astounds me,” Angus said. “Their belief is that, after everything they’ve been through, people have good will.”

In particular, Canada should invest in the young people of Attawapiskat and other communities like it, said Angus.

“To me the future is in the young people,” he said. “It’s the story from Dickens of the Ghost of Christmas Future. It’s the real possibility of a generation of great and smart young leaders, or it’s the ghosts of want and ignorance. I see that sense of hopelessness in some young people and it’s manifested in violence and suicides and addictions. But at the same time there’s the opportunity for incredible leaders.”

The legacy of residential schools may have some in the Church worried about what kind of relationship they can have with native communities, but Angus is adamant that the churches still have a role to play.

“The word reconciliation really means something to them. Communities want reconciliation and the Church can articulate that.”

Churches and charity alone can’t solve Attawapiskat’s problems. That’s why we have government, said Angus.

“We shouldn’t need to do this. The communities don’t want to beg.”

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