Three communities – Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan have declared a state of emergency in their communities due to a housing crisis. Five families in Attawapiskat have been living in tents for a year, with others left without housing in other James Bay communities. With winter well on its way in this sub-arctic region, the situation is dire. It’s also a situation that was entirely avoidable.
In Lack Layton’s book Speaking Out Louder, he goes into detail about the long-standing neglect of Aboriginal people in Canada. Jack traveled with Charlie Angus to Kashechewan to see the state of on-reserve housing in Ontario. He saw multiple families crammed into small houses, many of which were in need of repair. He was to meet one individual but was told that this man was sleeping – it was the only time that a bed was available.
This was in 2004 under Paul Martin’s Liberal government. Sadly, the situation that Layton described has been subject to further neglect and a lack of planning under the Harper government, to today where families are living in tents and makeshift shacks in communities along the James Bay coast. It’s 2011. It’s Canada. We must do better.
In Canada the average household size is 2.3 people per household while in some Mushkegowuk (James Bay Cree) communities it ranges from 6 to 8. These are typically small bungalows unfit for so many people. According to Wawatay news, “in Attawapiskat there are only 304 homes and 3,281 residents. Kashechewan has 268 homes for its 1,900 residents and Fort Albany’s population is 1,000 with only 150 houses.” It’s no wonder people are living in tents. Surely there must be a feeling of desperation, despair and neglect. We must do better.
There’s an estimated $8.8 billion infrastructure gap in Ontario’s First Nations communities, while there’s an annual budget of only $260 million. This infrastructure gap includes $2.2 billion for housing, $2.5 billion for institutional service buildings, $2 billion for water and wastewater treatment plants (recall the number of boil water advisories in First Nations communities and the horrors Kashechewan has suffered due to contaminated water), and $1.9 billion for linear structures and roads. Keep in mind that Canada’s Aboriginal population is the fastest growing group in Canada. These numbers come as no surprise. This is a problem that’s developed for decades. The situation on the James Bay coast was entirely avoidable.
I’ve written a few posts on educational disparity for First Nations students in Ontario and the Attawapiskat school struggle. Finally, after all these years it seems that there is progress being made on the Attawapiskat school. But we need to take a holistic approach to education and realize that the physical school structure is but one aspect – our students need to feel supported and safe, they need access to adequate housing, food and water, family support structures, and safe communities. What can our expectations be for students in Attawapiskat when they finally get a proper school if they’re crammed into inadequate, unhealthy housing or living in tents? Housing isn’t just about having a place to sleep but a safe place to live and thrive. It’s about opportunity. We must do better.
The growing housing crisis along the James Bay coast reveals two needs from John Duncan and the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development: obviously we need an immediate solution to this current crisis but what is really needed is a long-term plan to match the living standards in Aboriginal communities with that enjoyed in the rest of Canada. It’s about equality. It’s about opportunity. We must do better.