Chronic underfunding of essential services and fears over land losses prompt Attawapiskat chief to go on hunger strike
When images of Canada‘s First Nations people living in mouldy shacks and frosty tents, without toilets or running water, emerged last year, Canadians were shocked.
It was Canada’s “Katrina moment” says Charlie Angus, New Democratic party member for Timmins-James Bay in north Ontario.
Fast forward a year, and progress has been excruciatingly slow. The indigenous community only received 22 trailer homes to deal with the housing crisis. A construction trailer with three bathrooms and a kitchen still caters for around 50 people, according to Angus.
As a result, the chief of the Attawapiskat, Theresa Spence, has been on a hunger strike living in a teepee across from parliament since 11 December as winter descends on Canada’s capital, Ottawa. She says she is willing to die for her people if the Queen and the prime minister, Stephen Harper, don’t meet Canada’s indigenous chiefs to discuss the treaty rights they signed with the crown.
Many of Canada’s aborigines live in what can only be described as developing world conditions.
Chronic underfunding of essential social services and complete collapse of infrastructure on reserves results in high mortality, unemployment, substance abuse, suicide and incarceration.
Early development is obstructed for children on reserves by a bureaucratic financial hole that gives 30% to 50% less educational funding than to other Canadian youngsters.
Unrest is growing among Canada’s First Nations as the conservative government makes sweeping changes to environmental protections and the Indian Act which many fear will fast-track the absolute surrender of indigenous territory, terminate treaty rights and endanger land and water in favour of economic gain.
The past two weeks has seen the largest series of nationwide protests in two decades, and on Friday a grassroots-led campaign under the Twitter hashtag #IdleNoMore will see thousands in over a dozen cities across Canada, the US and UK take to the streets and call on Harper and Governor General David Johnston to enter negotiations with Spence.
Pamela Palmater, lawyer, professor and director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance, believes the unprecedented changes to legislation combined with drastic cuts to native organisations will open up Canada’s indigenous lands to mineral extraction sell-offs to China.
The spokesman for the minister of Aboriginal affairs and northern development was asked what consultation process was conducted with First Nations before amending the Indian Act. Jason MacDonald didn’t specify, but said the government conducts “over 5,000 consultations with First Nations” every year.
First Nations chiefs across Canada disagree and after more than 250 of them wanting to discuss the budget bill were denied entry to the house of commons in early December, some rallied behind a grassroots campaign, Idle No More.
Angus says that frustration and anger has built up for a long time as communities feel they are moving backwards while the government’s attitude is increasingly dismissive and derogatory, “like a colonial power treating First Nations like a hostage population”.
The budget bill dismantles a 130-year-old environmental law removing from federal oversight 99.7% of Canada’s 32,000 major lakes and over 99.9% of Canada’s more than 2.25m rivers.
This will disproportionately affect First Nations, as decades of underfunding and neglect have left 73% of all water systems and 65% of waste water systems on reserves at medium to high risk.
The government can dismantle environmental protections, but First Nations still have constitutionally protected rights to be consulted and accommodated on any developments that could cause irreversible damage to their land.
Earlier this year the government signed Angus’s motion to close the funding gap between aboriginal children and the rest of Canadian children and Attawapiskat is set to get a new school 12 years after the previous one closed.
Meanwhile, plans to build 30 houses this summer did not get a green light from the minister of Aboriginal affairs and northern development, John Duncan, whose press officer said they had made repeated offers to assist, but “the community has yet to submit a housing plan, nor are there any lots ready for any homes to be installed”.
Rather than provide state-of-emergency assistance last year, Duncan removed Spence’s council’s financial authority, blamed the housing crisis on its financial mismanagement, and placed them in third-party management, a move later ruled unreasonable by the federal court.
As Spence approaches week three of her hunger strike, and indigenous people across the country and people as far away as Egypt and the UK have fasted in solidarity, there is little indication that Harper will meet her, portending turbulent times ahead.