Posted on Mon, Dec 5, 2011, 5:13 am by Don Lenihan
When the story on Attawapiskat broke, I was attending a poverty reduction summit in Iqaluit. Nunavut, too, is a place of grinding poverty and often wretched living conditions. However, the discussion underway at the Summit was very different from the one in Ottawa and Toronto.
The key question everyone down South wants answered is: What should these governments do about Attawapiskat? Should they move the community? Should they build more houses? Do they need to strengthen accountability? Is self-government the right option?
At the Summit, this kind of debate was treated as passé. Nunavummiut (the people of Nunavut) have been down this road. Their communities have been moved, with disastrous consequences. Sixty percent live in public housing, which is now widely seen as a major cause of poverty. They have had their own territory for over a decade. The government is accountable, yet poverty persists.
Not that anyone at the Summit thought these questions were unimportant. The difference lies in how they felt the issues should be discussed. Posing questions this way already shapes the solutions. It suggests, first, that the answer lies with government; and, second, that the problem persists because government has not yet found the right answer (policy) to resolve the issue.
By contrast, people at the Summit agreed, first, that poverty is the product of complex social conditions, ranging from cultural practices and beliefs to lack of education and economic opportunities; and, second, that many of the causes and solutions lay outside government’s responsibilities or its reach.
One of the last times I saw her was when she and Serena spoke at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention in Toronto. She blew the room away. Tough-assed union leaders cried when they heard her speak.
While the housing crisis in Attawapiskat has the country’s full attention, it was an event on March 5, 2005, that pushed the community toward its current dire state of affairs.Attawapiskat resident Jackie Hookimaw still remembers that moment.
“My father, he noticed at three in the morning… there was a big awful smell and there was something leaking into the basement,” said Hookimaw.
A sewage backup flooded the dirt basement floors of several homes in the community, including Hookimaw’s parent’s home.
The sewage backup happened around the same time that De Beers, the international diamond company currently operating a mine 90 kilometres from the community, disposed their sewage sludge into the community’s lift station, said Hookimaw.
Documents obtained by APTN National News back Hookimaw’s claim.
Ontario First Nations Technical Services was called in to assess the situation and its engineers concluded that the De Beers discharge may have been behind the sewage backup that ended up in the basements of homes in Attawapiskat.
“What is currently known is that De Beers discharged a load of sewage into the pumping station. This might have precipitated the overloading of the pumping station, thereby causing sewage backup,” said the engineering report.
The engineers also noted that the federal government was informed of the problems, but Ottawa did little to try to fix things, according to a follow-up report by different engineers with First Nations Engineering Services.
“The general condition of the pump control panel is very poor. There is a key switch to control manual selection of the pumps. It is very difficult to operate and may fail at anytime,” the report noted.
The report found that the system was very fragile and at high risk of failing.
“There is no overload protection. This is an extremely risky way to run a pump,” the report said.
De Beers was told about the reports by APTN National News, but a company spokesman said they knew nothing about it.
“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the story you’re talking about,” said Tom Ormsby, spokesperson for De Beers.
In 2009, the warnings from engineers proved prophetic. There was another sewage backup which displaced more people, forcing many to be evacuated.
Communities like the Attawapiskat Nation are allocated funds through the Canadian Federal Government. But the amount is not sufficient to maintain adequate housing in the community, and Attawapiskat has launched a plea ...
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