A First Nation’s call for help

The author at 15 years old, just past the halfway point on the 8.5 mile long Grand Portage linking Lake Superior with the Pigeon River, and the namesake for this 1977 expedition.

On Thursday, February 23, 2012, the last of 22 new modular homes arrived in the Attawapiskat First Nation of northern Ontario. To the Canadian federal government, it signaled the trumpeted end of a crisis that began almost a full four months earlier.

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan issued the following statement: “The arrival of these modular homes demonstrates our government’s commitment to the residents of Attawapiskat First Nation.”

Not trying to look a gift horse in the mouth, I can’t help but think that maybe this type of band-aid solution, although well intentioned, is only masking the reason why Attiwapiskat, and many other First Nation communities find themselves on the precipice of marginalization.

Attawapiskat, Ontario, Canada, 2011. Photo by Oakland Ross / Toronto Star.

On October 28, 2011, Attawapiskat, an aboriginal community on the shores of Canada’s James Bay, declared a state of emergency. The reason was not one of natural disaster, or act of God.  Instead, it was a human act: that decidedly oxymoronic, and inhumane human act known as neglect. Attawapiskat was, according to Chief Theresa Hall, suffering from inadequate housing.

What makes this so hard to stomach is that it is happening in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and I can’t help but think not much has changed in the 35 years since I viewed my first northern First Nations’ community from the middle thwart of a canoe.

The long-haul transport rigs of Canada's fur trade: the voyageur canoe. Painting by Frances Anne Hopkins. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a high school teenager, one of my unconventional school’s requirements was paddling the historic trade routes shared by the voyageurs, and the companies vying for control of the fur trade: The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay, which became the Hudson’s Bay Company; and its rival, the Montréal based North West Company.

These corporate entities provided the drive and determination needed to open up the interior of the continent through exploration and mapping, linking great watersheds like Hudson’s Bay, the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River in the process. Ultimately, their competitive zeal would lead to this vast landmass’ improbable birth as the nation known today as Canada.

Our trips were up to four weeks in length. On top of giving myself, and my fellow students an up close and personal view of but a small portion of the huge tracts of wilderness that made up our country, it allowed us the opportunity to truly experience its history.

Paddling the Grand Portage Route: the roughly 800-mile fur trade "highway" from Fort William (present day Thunder Bay, Ontario) to Lower Fort Garry (Winnipeg, Manitoba), 1977.

After a week or more without seeing a trace of human existence, we would often paddle our 22’ Chestnut Freighter canoes around a point of land, exposing First Nation communities the likes of Wabaseemoong, Little Grand Rapids, Bloodvein, and Berens River. We were offered only a fleeting glimpse into the world of the Saulteaux, a branch of the Ojibwa, or Anishinaabe people. But it was a glimpse I remember with sharp clarity.

Clusters of pre-fab style homes would be grouped together overlooking the shoreline, often with newer buildings set amongst what looked to be their decidedly older, dilapidated brethren. Not all buildings were in such a sad state of repair. But the overall impression was one of poor quality, and disposability, as opposed to longevity.

When a building reached a certain state of disrepair, it was replaced. Left to the elements, it became an empty gutted shell of a structure that neither grew old gracefully, nor accurately portrayed the proud history and culture of its former inhabitants.

The sign that adorned many of the Hudson Bay Company's former northern stores in Canadian First Nation communities. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The locals would look on, perhaps offering a friendly wave and smile, as we cut through the water, and paddled out of their sight. Sometimes, we made a brief stop at the Hudson’s Bay Company store. These were often white washed buildings boasting impressive signs done in immaculate script, pronouncing the birth date of what is today, still the oldest company in North America, and one of the oldest in the world. The Northern Stores, as they were known, served as the last vestiges of the fur trade era, and stood in stark contrast to the worn, tired buildings many locals called home.

Little did I know that the situation I saw as a teenager would become symptomatic of the welfare state we have created for the First Nations people of Canada’s north. No doubt, a lot of money is spent at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the department tasked with ensuring the Government of Canada meets its obligations and commitments to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. But, there does not appear to be much change in the housing situation since my youth, other than the fact that communications and media allow for more well-intentioned Canadians to become aware of the problem.

Our government’s first response always seems to be laying the blame for deplorable conditions squarely at the feet of the chiefs, and band councils, citing fiscal mismanagement. But, then that same government offers another temporary solution to what appears to be a systemic issue, by throwing more money at the symptom, rather than fighting, and eliminating the cause of the problem. It is oxymoronic, bad business practice, and plain wrong on so many levels.

Attawapiskat is not the first cry for help to be heard from Canada’s First Nations, nor unfortunately, will it be the last. But, my hope is that the plight of these communities becomes a greater priority to all Canadians, and by extension, the federal government that claims to represent our views, and serve our needs. Because up until now, our collective actions prove the old adage that we have learned nothing from history. As a Canadian, this is embarrassing, unacceptable, and very sad.

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One Response to A First Nation’s call for help

  1. Mark, thank you sharing your experience with us.

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