If you want to understand what’s going on in Attawapiskat, you need to hop on a plane. There’s pretty much no other way to grasp why one of Canada’s First Nation fly-in communities would be receiving disaster relief from the Red Cross for simply attempting to exist as a town.
I see it this way, at any rate, because I had to travel by bush plane from Thunder Bay to three Oji-Cree reserves 600 kilometres north in the remote Ontario forest before I could grasp the essence of the crisis.
What this is about, in all kinds of ways, is distance. A distant bureaucracy from a distant culture imposing baffling edicts and regulations on a group of people who were highly self-sufficient hunters and trappers for thousands of years before they wandered into the quicksand of the Indian Act.
The Oji-Cree didn’t spring fully-formed from the earth as “lazy welfare bums” whose chiefs “squander taxpayers’ money.”
On the contrary, a strikingly competent people were assigned patches of land in the boreal wilderness — and that is what you glimpse from the plane, the unutterable vastness of that wilderness — and told to stay put. No more following the game, or the trap lines. The forest around them became Crown Land. They cannot log it, not even for houses. They’re not allowed to run a saw mill. They can’t secure mortgages.
Instead, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy thousands of kilometres away in Ottawa devised an arid calculus for Aboriginal housing allotments that apparently takes no account of location. X amount of money per home, regardless of whether the home is built two feet outside of Toronto or upon the isolated flood planes of James Bay.
As a result, the Oji-Cree bands find themselves having to spend a significant chunk of allotted money on shipping the materials they aren’t permitted to cull from the world around them. Money diverted to shipping (and flown-in contractors and inspectors) means fewer houses, and over some decades the shortfall becomes extreme. People crowd in together. Children start sleeping in shifts.
If windows arrive cracked, they get installed cracked, because there is no cash to buy a replacement window. (Nor is there a store.)
There are no nearby materials with which to mix and pour concrete foundations, so the houses go up slipshod on wood bases, on damp or flooded ground. It doesn’t take long for mould to spread.
If your door knob falls off, you can’t replace it, because there’s no store. (See above.)
If your steps rot, you can’t repair them, because you haven’t got a hammer. (See above.)
The tragic absurdity of the situation only pops out at you when you fly up there, because who can imagine the predicament?
Walking around the community of Summer Beaver, for instance, trailed by cheerful dogs, I was absolutely floored by the absence of everything civic. This was a town, but there was no community centre or restaurant or playground or sports arena or clothing shop or Timmies. The entire society was serviced by a single corner store selling corner store stuff, like Beef-a-Roni and Coke. Nothing else for hundreds of kilometres except hauntingly beautiful woods.
The people are stoic, witty and hospitable. Remarkably, they continue to be hopeful. The health director at Summer Beaver sends emails to Health Canada, pointing out that the houses are filled with mould, which elicit “mould assessments” by experts that, in turn, result in formal reports back to Summer Beaver saying “Yes, indeed, you’ve got mould.”
It’s like your entire nation had been conquered — not by soldiers, but by “Emily,” the automated Bell Canada voice assistant who led us all in circles a few years back until enough customers roared.
I’m guessing it is only a matter of time before the houses are condemned, like the homes in Attawapiskat, and everyone spills into tents. This is what I mean about the Red Cross having to provide disaster relief for the disaster of trying to live when bureaucratically-governed.
The school in Attawapiskat was condemned over a decade ago. But the government forgot/wasn’t interested/didn’t get around to building a new one, giving rise to “Shannen’s Dream,” a campaign spearheaded by the children. They went down to Ottawa, led by a spirited and articulate 13-year-old named Shannen Koostachin, and said, “Please, may we have a school?”
No, you may not.
There is still no built school, although it continues to be promised, as if it were an indulgence not to be taken too seriously, such as when children ask their parents for a pony.
Put the school in place, though, and what is the curriculum teaching? Algebra, perhaps, but not how to trap beaver or operate a power drill. The education offered to the Oji-Cree is neither practical nor culturally relevant. You cannot take an ancient nomadic culture out of the forest, stick them in “towns,” and skip the part about teaching them how to build according to code. This is particularly ill-advised if you are also going to force them to forget how to hunt and trap by packing them off to residential schools for a couple of generations. They now know precisely nothing of this, nor that.
I visited the Oji-Cree with the North-South Partnership for Children, a fledgling coalition of private citizens, Rotarians, philanthropists and NGOs in southern Ontario who are working with the communities to find more practical, relevant and flexible solutions. What the communities are seeking, overwhelmingly, is skills training, distance mentoring, knowledge transfer, moral support. “Just walk beside us for a while,” as one elder put it.
They don’t want to be rescued, although there’s nothing for it in the short run. But they don’t want that in the long run. They want to be oriented, the way we regularly and abundantly orient immigrants to their native land.
They also wouldn’t mind a wee bit — just a modicum — of respect. You try living in a tent for two years in -40C weather and keeping your sense of humour. They’re doing it even as I write.