As homes started wending their way toward Attawapiskat, some from as far away as New Brunswick, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples took Canada to task for letting the housing situation and other conditions deteriorate so profoundly that people’s lives were in danger.
“I have been in communication with the Government of Canada to express my deep concern about the dire social and economic condition of the Attawapiskat First Nation,” James Anaya, the U.N. special rapporteur, said in a statement, noting that temperatures are already dropping to –18 degrees Fahrenheit as winter sets in. “Many of this First Nation’s approximately 1,800 members live in unheated shacks or trailers, with no running water. The problem is particularly serious as winter approaches.”
Anaya reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council and is charged with making sure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are respected and that best practices are in place, according to the description on the council’s website. His words came just after the country’s aboriginals celebrated the one-year anniversary of Canada’s endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo was also scheduled to visit Attawapiskat on December 20 along with a delegation of aboriginal leaders, according to an AFN press release. Traveling with him were Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell and AFN Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse; Olympian and IndigenACTION Ambassador Waneek Horn-Miller, and Don Morrison of the Debbie and Don Morrison Family Foundation.
Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency at the end of October due to housing conditions that had deteriorated so badly that she feared for her people’s lives. It took Canadian officials more than a month to notice, and then only after a media frenzy sparked by Member of Parliament Charlie Angus’s essay on Huffington Post.
The ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) at first made assistance contingent on the community’s acceptance of a third-party administrator who would take over the First Nation’s finances and conduct an audit. Spence kicked him out and told reporters she had filed a court injunction to keep him out.
The situation has been dubbed “Canada’s Haiti,” but the truth is that many suffer under conditions similar to those in Attawapiskat: no running water, housing that is falling apart or contaminated with mold, people living in trailers and tents.
“The social and economic situation of the Attawapiskat seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to Third World conditions,” Anaya said in a statement released by the U.N. “Yet this situation is not representative of non-aboriginal communities in Canada, a country with overall human rights indicators scoring among the top of all countries of the world. Aboriginal communities face vastly higher poverty rights, and poorer health, education, employment rates as compared to non-aboriginal people.”
Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan met with Spence and tried to convince her to keep the auditor, but she refused. Now the matter is drawing international attention on a number of fronts.
Duncan responded to Anaya’s statement by railing against “inaccuracies” and saying that it “lacks credibility,” CBC News reported.
“I will be monitoring closely the situation of the Attawapiskat First Nation and other aboriginal communities in Canada, keeping an open dialogue with the Government and all stakeholders to promote good practices, including new laws, government programmes, and constructive agreements between indigenous peoples and states, and to implement international standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples,” Anaya said.
Meanwhile the 22 three-bedroom modular homes, already en route, will have to wait in Moosonee, Ontario, until the roads ice over in mid-January, CBC News said, so they can be trucked into 1,800-population Attawapiskat, on the shores of James Bay. The federal government is converting some spaces in the First Nation into temporary shelters.