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ATTAWAPISKAT, ONT.—If she had a magic wand, Rosie Koostachin would change many things in her community. There would be better housing, health care and education. There would be more jobs and there would be no drug and alcohol abuse. Oh, and the reserve would be better run.
But there is no magic wand. Neither is one on its way. Koostachin, the wise 42-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one, knows that.
“Attawapiskat hasn’t changed in decades … I don’t think it ever will. It can’t. I was born here, I was raised here and I have raised all my kids here. The problems I saw four decades ago … they are problems we still face.”
Health care and education will always be a challenge. The dropout rate at the local high school will stay at more than 50 per cent. So will poverty. There will be no employment opportunities. Entertainment will at best be non-existent except around Christmas. The local cost of living will always be expensive (a single red pepper costs $3.99 and half dozen bananas $2.89).
It is the truth. Koostachin is not the only one who says so. She may be brave enough to talk openly about it but others say the same thing privately: Attawapiskat, home to about 1,900 people, can likely never be fixed. In the long run it is unsustainable.
“But this is also our home,” says Koostachin, throwing her hands in the air. It is a conundrum.
ATTAWAPISKAT HAS a long list of problems. The community was founded in 1893 by Catholic missionaries. The steepled church, an aging grey structure next to the Attawapiskat River, remains the most striking structure.
In 1901, the Hudson’s Bay Co. built a store here. Most natives lived in the bush at the time, hunting, trapping and fishing, and it was only in the 1930s that the settlement began to grow. Housing came in the 1970s, running water and sewage treatment arrived in the 1990s.
It’s been unravelling since it all began. The isolated Cree reserve’s problems exist, and persist, mostly due to its location.
For much of the year, it is accessible only by air, which complicates life here terribly. For example, home repairs are near impossible because neither materials nor skills are available locally. There is no permanent doctor at the local hospital. Pregnant women must be flown either to Moosonee, a larger reserve on nearby James Bay, or to Timmins, Ont. Teachers and nurses, almost all non-aboriginal, feel marooned and don’t stick around too long.
The one non-aboriginal who has remained in the community is, perhaps, also its most loved.
Father Rodrigue Vezina first came here 39 years ago. He has never left, except to spend a couple of weeks every summer with his family in Quebec City.
The Oblate priest says he has spent a lot of time, especially during the long dark winters, thinking about the reserve’s future and how it can be improved. The answer eludes him.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1308471–attawapiskat-it-hasn-t-changed-in-decades-i-don-t-think-it-ever-will