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Attawapiskat's chief denounces Ottawa's 'blame-the-victim' response

Grand Chief Stan Loutit, Band Chief Theresa Spence, MP Charlie Angus and NDP Interim leader Nycole Turmel listen to a resident of Attawapiskat. November 29, 2011.


Amid the political clamour over a housing shortage on a Northern Ontario reserve, the chief of Attawapiskat says her community's voice has been silenced.

Chief Theresa Spence is questioning the way the federal government has handled the situation.

Conditions at the reserve on the western shore of James Bay have catapulted onto the national agenda and are likely to provide the backdrop for a meeting announced for early in the new year between native leaders and the federal government.

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Shawn Atleo, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called the Jan. 24 meeting an opportunity.

"We can perhaps consider this moment and the idea of us gathering as a moment to reset the relationship between first nations and the federal Crown," Mr. Atleo said on Thursday.

But for the people of Attawapiskat, that relationship could be beyond saving.

Ms. Spence said she's incensed at how the government has dealt with the ongoing crisis on her reserve, and accused federal officials of barging into an emergency management meeting to deliver the news that the band's finances were no longer in its own hands.

The living conditions on the reserve don't belong to Attawapiskat alone, Ms. Spence said, raising questions about why the government has acted as it did.

"The rationale is mere political deflection … ," she said in a statement. "And this rationale has been used by the department to silence us when we brought these conditions to the attention of Canadian society."

A severe housing shortage in the community has forced families to live in tents and unheated trailers, some without access to running water and electricity.

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Meanwhile, the reserve's children go to school in portable classrooms, having waited years for a school to be built to replace the one that needed to be torn down.

Journalists, opposition politicians and the Red Cross descended on the community on Tuesday to witness the situation. Offers of assistance have come in from around the world.

The Conservatives say they've spent $90-million in Attawapiskat over the past five years and want to know where the money has gone.

They placed the band under third-party management on Wednesday, citing health and safety issues as well as concerns over financial stewardship. Control over the public funds was handed to an outside party.

The government said the move allows it to act swiftly to address the issues.

Attawapiskat is one of only a few bands in the country that posts its financial statements online, and government officials have visited the community 10 times in the last year.

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Ms. Spence said the reserve's finances have been audited and accepted by government. She said officials were welcome to come back and review the books as it would show the true cost of life in the North.

"It is incredible that the Harper government's decision is that instead of offering aid and assistance to Canada's first peoples, their solution is to blame the victim and that the community is guilty and deserving of their fate," Ms. Spence said.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents the riding in which Attawapiskat is located, said the switch to third-party management has already had repercussions in the form of people reporting losing access to welfare.

"Is that value for taxpayers' money, that the people of Attawapiskat who stood out in the cold for a month asking for help are getting their welfare cut off?" he said. "Because that's what happened when you're in third-party management. You don't get to make those decisions."

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