MP at odds with grand chief over housing crisis

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip critical of the government's handling of Attawapiskat

  • Dec. 21, 2011 5:00 p.m.

Penticton’s federal politician has waded into current events surrounding aboriginal housing, but one First Nations leader is suggesting he put recent news in historical context.

Okanagan Coquihalla representative Dan Albas said he broached the subject of the Attawapiskat housing crisis in his MP report last week in part out of constituents’ concern.

“I want to make sure people are aware of the legislation and issues we’re dealing with in Ottawa, to leave that open so if they have questions and want further information, my office is ready,” he said. “I had requests for information on it. I had a number of people actually say, ‘We’d like to address this in your MP report.’”

He highlighted local success with economic development by the Osoyoos Indian Band and Westbank First Nation, as well as the Penticton Indian Band’s efforts to reach out for opportunities.

But he recognized success is not ubiquitous among First Nations in the country. “It is clear that in Attawapiskat we are failing to get the results that Canadian taxpayers expect from government,” he wrote.

The first nation declared a state of emergency after families moved into tents and sheds from condemned housing. On Nov. 30, the federal government indicated a third-party manager would be appointed to handle the first nation’s affairs.

Albas stated in his report that, after reading the financial statements of the first nation, he found $3.2 million is spent on administration. “While there is undeniably a shortage of acceptable housing in the community, there is no shortage of governance,” Albas wrote.

He said in an interview later in the week that the Department for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development don’t want third-party oversight “longer than the situation merits.”

“At the end of the day, we need to continue to work with First Nations on their priorities. Obviously there’s some extreme issues in Attawapiskat that are being addressed, but we all need to work on them step by step,” he said.

But Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said that Attawapiskat has already been under co-management with the federal government for several years, and appointing a third-party manager is political deflection.

“When a particular community draws public attention to the systemic deficiencies of the government of Canada’s aboriginal policy, the Harper government immediately circles the wagons, demonizes the subject first nation’s leadership — of course that’s the chief and council of Attawapiskat — and incites a racially charged public backlash against Aboriginal people,” he said, adding the third-party manager is costing $1,300 a day. “Obviously rather than address these issues, they’re more inclined to publicly blame and humiliate the victim.”

The events in Ontario are also just scratching the surface, Phillip said. “Within Aboriginal circles, it’s a well-known fact that there are literally dozens and dozens of Attawapiskat situations across this country.”

He pointed to several first nations with systemic poverty that drew national attention in the last decade: the Kashechewan First Nation was evacuated in 2005 for a collapse in their domestic water system, Davis Inlet was revealed as suffering from intense drug problems in 2001, two nations in James Bay have since declared states of emergency and Attawapiskat itself saw the media spotlight after a diesel leak forced the community to condemn the school on site.

Those stories prompted then-prime minister Paul Martin to draft the Kelowna Accord in conjunction with First Nations leaders in 2005, Phillip said, which called for a $5.2 billion investment in Aboriginal communities including $1.6 billion for emergency housing and $400 million for domestic water infrastructure. But when the Conservatives took over, “Their first official act was to trash the Kelowna Accord,” he said.

“The ongoing structural poverty in First Nations communities across this country is nothing short of a national disgrace,” Phillip said, “and successive governments have been aware of these situations and have done very little to address this reality.”

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs also urged indigenous peoples, band councils, tribal councils,  provincial organizations and others to consider donating to Attawapiskat through the Canadian Red Cross.