Many families at Attawapiskat First Nation have been living in tents and shanties with no heat or indoor plumbing. Photo: Charlie Angus/YouTube
Canadian church and human rights groups have thrown their support behind Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence, who has resisted Ottawa’s appointment of a third party manager to address the housing crisis in her reserve in northern Ontario.
On Dec. 11, Spence issued a strongly worded letter disputing a claim made by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan that she has agreed to third party management. "This statement is completely false and untrue and the Minister has been misinformed," said Spence in her statement.
On Dec. 12, Duncan announced he was setting up a meeting with Spence to iron out the issue. Last November, as temperatures plunged, Spence had declared a state of emergency and asked the federal government to consider a temporary evacuation of her community because of a lack of housing, heat, safe drinking water and other basic needs. Many families had been living in tents, shanties and other makeshift shelters with no heat or indoor plumbing.
"Imposition of third party management moves a community further away from self-determination, self-sufficiency and genuine partnership," said a joint statement issued by Kairos, the ecumenical justice organization, Amnesty International and Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers). The Anglican Church of Canada is a member of Kairos, along with 10 other churches and religious groups.
"In addition, because communities have no effective legal recourse, the federal government’s power to place First Nations under a third party too often appears arbitrary and lacks accountability," the group statement added. "The Auditor General has commented that it is also not an economically efficient way to manage First Nations resources."
In the statement, the church groups questioned why the federal government has not engaged in a "proper, comprehensive assessment of Attawapiskat’s needs and why these needs are not being met." The government should also account for how much it spends on First Nations services and compare them to what is made available to other Canadians, they added. They noted that in June 2011, interim Auditor General John Wiersema submitted a report to the House of Commons lamenting the "lack of progress in improving the lives and well-being" of First Nations communities.
"I am very disappointed that conditions on reserves have worsened and are well below the national average," Wiersema said at that time.
Also noted in the statement was the fact that international human rights bodies "have been raising concerns about the conditions" in many indigenous communities across Canada. In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing noted that "progress has been very slow" in addressing issues such as overcrowded and inadequate housing conditions, and a lack of basic services, including water and sanitation.