POLITICS CHATTER: Is Attawapiskat worth saving? Time to look for creative solutions
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Is Attawapiskat worth saving? Time to look for creative solutions

He wrote about the plight of Attawapiskat during the last federal election campaign. Now, in the wake of the current crisis, contributing editor Mark Bourrie tackles the topic again. Is this place worth saving?

All of a sudden, people care about Attawapiskat. It’s the news story of the month.

Suddenly, because of the housing shortage in the town and an embarrassing intervention of the Red Cross, everyone has opinions on a place they’ve been able to ignore for years. I wrote about Attawapiskat on this blog during the last election, but it never became an issue. Maybe now people will take a look at this disaster – and others like it – and try to come up with a real solution.

There’s no real reason for Attawapiskat to exist. Every other town has a reason for being: some industry, perhaps as a market town for a hinterland, maybe as an administrative or financial centre. But Attawapiskat is just there.

The Cree were trappers and hunters who lived in family groups and travelled across their territory taking game and fishing. In the summer, they congregated at some of the better fishing spots or at points where canoe routes converged to trade and visit for a few weeks every summer.

Fur traders plunked down forts at these spots and used these annual gatherings to exchange pelts for trade goods. There was nothing particularly sinister about it. They just went where the market was.

But some of these communities, like Attawapiskat, lost their reason for existence with the end of the fur trade. The 1,800 or so people who live there can’t make a living by hunting. Furs aren’t worth much. Nor, in that subarctic corner of the world, is there a fishery that can sustain the community. If there was, there would be fur and fish processing, people building and maintaining boats and nets, others with jobs packing and shipping. In short, there would be something resembling an economy.

There’s  a diamond mine about 100 kilometres away, and DeBeers, which owns it, has hired several dozen people from the reserve. But the community is hardly within commuting range, especially since there’s no road between the mine and the town.

Nor is there a road from Attawapiskat to anywhere else. Everything must be brought in by air, which, in part, explains why those sub-standard shacks built by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development cost $250,000 each. Every stick has to be brought in by plane or along a road built on the ice of James Bay and the Attawapiskat River in the winter. (There used to be a small sawmill in the village, but it closed years ago.)

So why would anyone want to live there?

People have a strong sense of home, even when home is a shack on the floodplain of a gigantic river that drains a swamp the size of England. It’s, literally, the devil you know. The alternatives are to embrace traditional life – camping in tents or bark cabins in the woods and living off the land – or to move south, to cities like Thunder Bay, where booze, drugs, gangs, and culture shock await.

And it’s been convenient for bureaucrats who administer the Cree. Have you ever noticed that people who are “administered” rarely show any sign of getting on their own feet?

There has to be some alternative solution. Move the community to a safer, drier place closer to jobs? Build a road across the swampland from Moosonee to connect Attawapiskat and the other villages in the Hudson Bay lowlands to Ontario’s road grid to try to reduce the isolation and cut the cost of living?

Certainly what’s been done so far doesn’t work. No one set out to make Attawapiskat an unliveable community, but people can turn the page (once the current crisis is dealt with in the short-term) and ask the people of Attawapiskat why they want to live there, or if they want to move. Some may want to stay, others may be willing to leave, but either way, there will be a tough transition.

One answer may be a land swap, giving the Cree Crown land in the boreal forest farther south, where they can make money from logging, tourism, and in mining jobs on their traditional territory. This gets them out of the cold, wet country of the lowlands and still allows them to use their homeland for hunting and fishing.

Attawapiskat is a national disaster, and it’s not the only one. I’ve been to reserves in Northern Ontario, and many of them look no different. The traditional remedies of treating Native people as “clients,” leaving them in communities with no jobs and no real point to their existence, and putting them on the dole, do not work.

The solution lies in building real communities. And Attawapiskat is not a community, it’s a ghetto.