The Fountain Pen, Guelph's On-Line News

Many Reasons For Attawapiskat Economic Problems

Web posted on April 18, 2016

Dear Editor,

Recent news stories on Attawapiskat portray a dire situation that demands informed attention. Former Prime Minister Crétien's is correct in his assessment that the situation exists because the community lacks an economic base that is capable of supporting their non-traditional life-style. But there are other factors underlying that situation that, for reasons of political correctness, seldom get reported. Let me illustrate by way of a personal experience.

In the winter of 1995-96, when I was the Administration Officer at Number 3 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (3CRPG), with HQ at CFB Borden, we made arrangements with the Chiefs and Councils of two communities where we have Canadian Ranger patrols that 3CRPG would provide training for their volunteer firefighters, using staff and resources of the Canadian Forces Fire Academy (CFFA). The training would occur in two phases: a week in each community, followed by a week at CFFA facilities in Borden.

Phase 1 was received enthusiastically at Peawanuk, and their volunteer firefighters looked forward to attending the Academy for Phase 2. But the response at Attawapiskat was entirely different. Despite ostensible approval by the Chief and Council, they were ill prepared for our arrival, and from that we should have understood that we were not wanted there. Regrettably, it took us several days to get the message.

On the first day, an elder's funeral understandably pre-empted the scheduled classes, so we were taken instead to see the fire hall. In the dead of winter, their recently acquired pumper truck sat outside, its engine block frozen and cracked because it had been neither drained nor winterized. Inside, six sets of firefighter breathing apparatus sat in their cases, covered with dust; their inspection tags, which had to be updated every six months, had last been signed off three years earlier. The firefighters' common room was so littered with potato chip bags and take-out food trays that I would not have let a fire-hall Dalmatian eat off the floor. We spent that afternoon setting up a classroom in the community hall for the next day, frustrated that a TV and VCR had not been provided as previously arranged.

That evening we were lodged in a house whose gas cylinder was empty. When we acquired one and connected it, we found that our only source of heat was the oven of the gas stove. Local youth, meanwhile, were breaking off pieces of siding from the Northern Store across the street and hurling them at the house where we were staying. Next day, after much cajoling, a TV and VCR were obtained for the classroom, but the VCR did not work, and though a dozen volunteer firefighters were expected, none showed up. We decided to try again the third day, but that time only one student arrived. We caught the next plane out for Moosonee.

Though arrangements to teach the course at Moosonee were hastily cobbled together, that course was every bit as successful as at Peawanuk. A couple of months later, after completing Phase 2 at CFFA, the volunteer firefighters from Peawanuk and Moosonee said they had enjoyed a useful and satisfying learning experience, as well as having enjoyed the amenities at CFB Borden.

Some months after that, the Community Centre where we had set up our classroom in Attawapiskat caught fire. It burned to the ground because the community had neither the skills nor the fire truck to deal with it.

Several inferences can be drawn from this scenario. First, the contrasting reactions of the three communities show that First Nations communities in Northern Ontario are not all cut from the same cloth. Some choose to benefit from available opportunities; others dismiss those opportunities to their own disadvantage. Second, the stonewalling of the adults and the overt hostility of the youth reflected an unwillingness to accept outside expertise, despite their constant demands for more money. Third, the state of the fire truck and the breathing apparatus would lead one to suspect a general climate of mismanagement of even the limited resources available, and an inertia within the leadership to address that.

The Attawapiskat girl on the late night news who said there is nothing there for the youth is perfectly correct. But the problem is more than just the lack of an economic base: it is attitudinal, or if you will, spiritual. One would hope that with the combined efforts of the local Catholic parish, First Nations re-traditionalists, the community school, and secular social services, Attawapiskat might find a renewed raison-d'être and hope for the future. Failing that, Mr Crétien's solution of relocating the community seems the only alternative.

Robert Lyon
Guelph, ON