For people of Attawapiskat, hope endures – by Jim Coyle (Toronto Star – January 27, 2012)

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.

ATTAWAPISKAT, ONT.—For more than 20 years, Gilles Bisson has been visiting Attawapiskat, often flying his own small plane up to this remote Cree reserve. As much as any outsider can, he knows all the people, all the issues. Being a smart guy, he also knows how much he doesn’t know.

“Sometimes,” sighs the veteran New Democrat MPP for Timmins-James Bay. “I wonder if I really understand the community any better now than when I started.”

Attawapiskat is basically built on swamp, about 300 kilometres north of Moosonee on the James Bay coast. And the imagery fits. Lately, as the reserve became the new Canadian shorthand for native need, dysfunction and failure, its problems have seemed just as boggy and intractable.

The community is, to be sure, everything it has been portrayed as and more — a world of chronic poverty and dependence, of babies having far too many babies, of cascading generations piling up in shanties, of disheartening self-sabotage, of nepotism and decidedly imperfect governance.

Sometimes, every affliction known to native reserves across Canada seems to have been poured into individuals here, people so buried under problems it’s impossible to imagine them ever emerging.

Bernice Tookate is 26. She has almost no education. “I didn’t make it to my Grade 8 graduation.” She has six children. Five have been taken into care. One daughter lives with her grandmother in Attawapiskat.

Until Bernice and her husband Patrick were moved recently into emergency shelter in the local healing lodge, they were living in an uninsulated shed, the door of which did not close, through nights of minus 30C.

Tookate is off drugs and alcohol now for more than two years. She and Patrick are hoping for one of the new homes promised by the federal government after the housing emergency was declared last year.

“I’m hoping, but I don’t want to believe it until I put my foot in there,” she says. At the healing lodge, isolated about three kilometres outside of town, the days go slowly. “There’s nothing to do here, sitting around wondering, waiting. I sleep. I pass days, and I don’t like it. I’m running out of puzzles.”

Still, Attawapiskat is more than just stories to scald the heart — as in the almost preternatural calm of 26-year-old Lisa Linklater as she gently tends her four children under age 5 in a 16-by-20 foot shed that only recently got insulated.

Marietta Mattinas is managing the emergency shelter at the healing lodge. She’s 48. She doesn’t want to do it long. She grew up in the bush around Attawapiskat and prefers the outdoors. The lodge was named after her son Jules. In 1992, he died at age 15 from sniffing gasoline.

When the treatment centre in the lodge was threatened with closing (which it ultimately did) in 2003, Mattinas led a walk by 11 women from Attawapiskat to Cochrane to protest and raise awareness. It was about 570 kilometres. It took 25 days. They walked in winter.

“I’m an outdoor person,” she shrugs at the astonishment of listeners.

For all its many troubles, Attiwapiskat is a place of such contradictions and paradoxes, home along with all the petty frailties known to humankind, to particular strengths, courage and generosity.

There is a forbearance among the people with circumstances that would have moved southerners to riot long ago.

Along with profound woundedness generations in the making, there is a quiet pride, and embarrassment at how their home — their homeland of thousands of years — has come to be known.

Even Stella Koostachin, the “concerned grandmother” who wrote a letter to the Grand Chief late last year pleading for housing help for her daughter, Lisa Linklater, is mortified at having touched off the media whirlwind in Attawapiskat late last year.

“I didn’t expect it to get this out of control,” she says.

It wasn’t difficult, when outsiders arrived, to find images of living conditions so appalling they were worthy of National Geographic photo spreads on the Third World.

Though new housing is on the way, it won’t arrive until February and won’t come close to meeting the need.

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