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Tories take financial control away from troubled Northern Ontario reserve

The federal government is taking control over public funding out of the hands of a Northern Ontario reserve grappling with a severe housing shortage.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says he’s also ordering an audit to find out where $90 million in federal money spent in Attawapiskat has gone over the last five years.

Duncan says emergency management measures have also been put in place to ensure people in the Cree community have access to warm, dry shelter this winter.

Placing the community under third-party management is the highest form of intervention available to the federal government when it feels the health, safety or welfare of aboriginals is compromised and funding agreements aren’t being honoured.

The Cree community of around 2,000 had already been under co-management, meaning they were working with an outside third party to organize their finances.

NDP Leader Nycole Turmel says the situation in the community is unimaginable and the prime minister needs to go and see for himself.

A severe housing shortage has families living in tents and trailers, many without access to running water, electricity and heat.

The Red Cross, journalists and politicians descended upon the remote community of Attawapiskat on Tuesday to witness a level of need that Turmel called unacceptable. She said she was told there’s a $4.5-million deficit in the community and the per-person spending figures are far lower than $50,000 per resident the Conservative say has been spent.

Turmel said the point is that it’s an emergency.

“I would love this prime minister to go there and then maybe he won’t talk about money, he will talk about the people,” Turmel said Tuesday.

She said there is room to debate accountability around the funds spent, but there needs to be a short-term plan to address immediate need followed by a plan for the future.

“They need discussion to create something out there,” she said.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the plan shouldn’t be just about Attawapiskat. He said there are health, education and infrastructure gaps throughout First Nations communities.

“Mr. Harper is dreaming in Technicolor if he thinks that attacking those of us who believe more investments are required is going to solve the problem,” Rae said.

He echoed Turmel’s call for Harper to visit.

“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be there, but he has to visit other communities too. It is not an exception and this is something we all have to recognize,” he said.

Not all reserves and bands are like Attawapiskat, suggested Tory MP Rod Clarke, who is Cree. But he called what’s happening there troubling.

“I see a breakdown in the community, in the programming and the management system,” he said.

“I think that has to be addressed, first off.”