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Faced with extreme poverty, Attawapiskat reserve cries out for help

The people of Attawapiskat can’t seem to catch a break.

They live on a small piece of land that shines white in the snow, close to where the Attiwapiskat River meets James Bay. From the air, their town is pristine and compact. It glistens in the sun, and small clouds of smoke from the ubiquitous wood stoves give the air a sweet fragrance.

Dogs, pickup trucks and snowmobiles share the wide streets.

The serenity is deceptive. Poverty and squalor are well entrenched here, spilling out from behind the battered steel doors that most homes rely on to keep out the cold.

Some homes don’t have those doors, and that’s where the deep desperation lurks. As local MP Charlie Angus said, “it’s Ground Zero of Canadian tragedy.”

Attawapiskat, like many reserves, is suffering an acute housing shortage. Families are doubled up in the small homes that line the handful of streets making up this town. Others have been squeezed out of their residences and had to seek shelter in shacks, teepees, tents or giant construction trailers donated by a De Beers diamond mine, about 80 kilometres from the reserve.

These families lack the basics of life in the North: running water, plumbing, insulation and proper heating.

But it’s not the first time the Cree community has cried out to Canada for more help. First, their elementary school had to be torn down because it was sitting on pools of toxic gas. The school has yet to be replaced, and children take their classes in chilly portables, keeping their coats on.

Then, two years ago, a sewage backup pushed wastewater into many homes, prompting an evacuation that cost the band council dearly.

The debt is still hanging over their heads, the houses have not yet been repaired, and the population continues to expand.

And while De Beers makes employing Attawapiskat members a top priority, very little of their salaries seems to flow back home to deal with harsh conditions. The miners move away, or find the rules of reserve life too restrictive to put their savings into.

Now, with the band’s finances in a mess, Ottawa is taking a bigger role in monitoring spending on the reserve.

The result is a vicious circle of compounding poverty, say residents and local leaders.

“It’s a very difficult place for people to live comfortable,” said Tom Ormsby, director of external and corporate affairs for De Beers’ Victor mine, in Attawapiskat to set up a recruitment fair. “It’s extreme climate, extreme remoteness … there are harsh, harsh living arrangements.”

Around the corner from the bright blue band office, Lisa Kiokee-Linklater lives in a tented shack that has a folded tarp as a doorway. She is watching television with her two toddlers.

Two mattresses lie on the floor, and each mattress is a bed for three. Mould is climbing in jagged patterns from the floor onto the children’s bed, even though Kiokee-Linklater just bought it last summer. The mattress cost her $1,000.

There is no running water, no bathroom and cold comes through the uninsulated floor. While many residents in makeshift homes like hers have a bucket stashed in a corner for a latrine, Linklater relies on diapers for her youngest children, and her in-laws’ house next door for herself.

There is little room for her four children to play. The broiling cast-iron wood stove that takes up one corner of the room represents a burn hazard and eliminates the notion of the rambunctious play that is the norm for most young kids.

Moving into the tent was Kiokee-Linklater’s choice. It seemed a step up from her previous home next door, where she shared a single bathroom with 20 other people until it became too much for her and her growing family.

“It’s kind of better, yeah,” she said, keeping a watchful eye on a son as he ate spaghetti with his fingers. “But during the winter, it’s cold. I cut back on the baths because it is so cold.”

Among the outsiders who flew into the Cree community on Tuesday were interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel and Angus, who knows many of the residents by name. They and the many visitors dropping into Attawapiskat this week are looking for solutions for the housing crisis.

Emergency supplies including blankets are coming in by air and officials are talking about how the federal government can help allay the band’s immediate problems. But work on a longer-term solution that would permit Attawapiskat to break free of its poverty spiral remains elusive.

“It’s really terrible that in Canada we have people in tents and shacks when it’s minus 15,” Turmel said after touring the town and meeting several families.

There is little new in the plight of the people of Attawapiskat. Aboriginal leaders will tell you there are similar crises on reserves in northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan.

Chief Theresa Spence says the five families living in tents should be housed by Christmas, since new funding can pay for renovations of some dilapidated homes.

But Kiokee-Linklater says she’s heard it all before and isn’t counting on vague promises. She is focused on making do.

“We need a major change in housing,” she said.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he’s not happy that millions of federal dollars haven’t alleviated the housing problem. The residents, too, want to know why their attempts at rejuvenation are constantly undermined by developments they can’t control.

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that reserves need about 80,000 new homes across the country. Already about 45 per cent of First Nations housing stock is sub-standard but often people live in condemned houses because they have nowhere else to go.

Roseanne Fireman used to live in a condemned Attawapiskat house until she found a better alternative. Her brother and young children still live in the structure, despite a ceiling ruined by an electrical fire. The living room floor is pocked with holes and the kitchen floor has turned spongy with moisture.

At one point, seven families crammed together in the three-bedroom house. It’s a typical pattern. Houses are built – often poorly, with little understand of how permafrost and muskeg can undermine the structure. Families move in and grow so quickly that soon they are overflowing the home.

Spence is constantly seeking new solutions for the homeless.

“They should have a place where they are comfortable and safe,” she said. “They need running water and heat.”

About 100 people are living in two construction trailers once used as residences for an employee camp at the nearby De Beers diamond mine.

These people share four bathrooms and a communal kitchen and cram together in small rooms reminiscent of a university residence. The pungent halls are noisy at night, with babies crying and teenagers clustering in loud groups.

Stella Wheesk lives in one trailer with her partner and her one-month old baby, Rain.

Their tiny flat is an improvement from her former home — a house condemned two years ago because it was infested with cockroaches and tainted by mould.

“I’m not angry with the government,” she says. “It’s mostly the band office.”

Donald Jacasum is living in the burnt-out skeleton of a shack, with makeshift wood scraps nailed over charred walls and beams. He cooks on a wood stove and has a large orange bucket near the flapping door for a latrine.

Health authorities have told him he can’t live like this so he is preparing to move into a bed at the treatment centre.

“At least I am alive,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”