After Attawapiskat, what? – by Jim Foulds (Toronto Star – December 29, 2011)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Jim Foulds is a freelance writer in Thunder Bay. He was the MPP for Port Arthur from 1971 to 1987.

When Canadians first saw the news about Attawapiskat they knew that no matter who is at fault, nobody in Canada should be using a plastic bucket for a toilet and have to dump it outside on a regular basis. Nobody should be calling a shack with mould on the walls home. And nobody in Ontario should be paying $23.50 for six apples and four small bottles of juice.

With little evidence, Prime Minister Stephen Harper charged that the funds that the federal government had transferred to the reserve over several years had been mismanaged. With no consultation he put the band under third party management.

(Earlier this year several flooded towns along the Assiniboine River called for provincial and federal help. Think how the municipalities would have reacted if, immediately after asking for aid, they had been placed under third party management.)

The Harper message to Attawapiskat was clear. Blame the victims; discredit the messenger; and sow doubt in the minds of Canadians.

No one’s hands are clean on this issue. The federal government has woefully underfunded the housing, educational and health needs of First Nations for years. The First Nations leadership has not been aggressive and honest enough about the conditions on many reserves. The provincial government has not ensured that the economic benefits from development on traditional lands flowed more equitably to First Nations. And the news media have ignored the reality of Third World conditions in Canada for far too long.

The media take an interest in Ontario’s northern reserves only when there is a crisis. Then they flood into the community, become instant experts and retreat to the comfort of their big city newsrooms until the next crisis. That’s been the unfortunate pattern since the early 1970s when the mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon River system resulted in the crisis of Minamata disease at Grassy Narrows.

Catholics have the concept of “sins of omission” — when you fail to do something that you should. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who pass by the man “beaten by robbers and left to die” are guilty of sins of omission. The Good Samaritan, who assists him, is not. Let’s not kid ourselves. Most of us knew of the need on many reserves. But because Attawapiskat is hundreds of kilometres even further into the bush than Thunder Bay or Timmins, we pretended that problems did not exist.

This is not the first time there has been a crisis at Attawapiskat.

 • In 1979, 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel (the largest spill in Northern Ontario) leaked under the elementary school. The school was finally closed in 2001 because of ongoing health problems suffered by students and teachers. Ten years later, the federal government pledged (for the third time) to fund a new school. Meantime, the children remain in inadequate portables.

 • In May 2008, hundreds of people were evacuated from the community because of flooding caused by ice jams in the Attawapiskat River.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website:–after-attawapiskat-what