This column was published in the February 13, 2012 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

Before Christmas, Canadians were shocked to see the living conditions in Attawapiskat, a First Nation community in Northern Ontario. In -20 C weather, families were living in tents and plywood shacks with no insulation, heated only by a single wood stove. Children suffered from rashes, respiratory infections and burns from the wood stoves. Sewage was being dumped in a ditch. The Canadian Red Cross moved in to help – this was a humanitarian crisis in our own back yard.

But it was a humanitarian crisis that had been going on for awhile, and one that is not limited to Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency – its third in three years – at the end of October, but it took a month before federal and provincial governments responded to the cry for help. Meanwhile, other First Nations communities are also confronting severe housing and infrastructure crises, without the high profile attention being paid to Attawapiskat.

In many northern communities, housing quality is an issue, with homes that are too small, poorly constructed or contaminated by toxic mould. For example, in the Sandy Bay Nation of Northern Manitoba, 300 families in a com-munity of 3,200 people are on a waiting list for housing. Willard Beaulieu, who lives in a house with mould, cockroaches and a sinking floor, told CBC News he had to “try to make the best of it.”

The Assembly of First Nations estimates that 85,000 new homes are required to meet the housing shortage confronting First Nations. And 41.5 percent of existing homes need repairs, compared to only seven percent of non-Aboriginal homes.

Safe drinking water is also an issue for First Nations. In October 2011, more than 20 percent of First Nations communities had a drinking water advisory. Of these, 70 percent had been in place for two years or more, with 38 percent in place for five years or more. In 2005, more than 800 members of the Kashechewan community, which neighbours Attawapiskat, had to be evacuated due to E.coli in their water. Much like with Attawapiskat, both the federal and provincial governments dragged their heels before finally taking action in response to the crisis.

A flawed relationship
There is a tendency in the rest of Canada to respond with bewilderment to such crises in our First Nations communities. Why don’t they just build adequate housing and infrastructure, we wonder. Why don’t they move somewhere else, where there is adequate housing and infrastructure? The answer is three-fold.

First, our colonialist system is ultimately responsible for the state of affairs today. First Nations communities live where they do because we put them there. We restricted each community to a tiny sliver of its traditional land, cut off from the resources around them, with many of their rights as Aboriginal people tied to the reserves upon which they live. In addition to the loss of certain rights as status Indians, Aboriginal people who move to the city (as they have in large number, particularly in Western Canada) can face marginalization and poverty without the resources of a family network and familiar culture which they have on the reserves.

While natural resources around their reserves are exploited by private companies, First Nations communities often struggle to make adequate deals that will secure at least some employment for their people. Economic development is a bleak prospect for many reserves dealing with distance, difficult transportation, inadequate infrastructure and culturally inappropriate education. For northern communities especially, the cost of living is very high as everything needs to be flown in or trucked in over ice roads. This is one reason for inadequate housing as it makes the cost of building a home very high and makes it more likely that inadequate materials will be used.

Second, the amount of government support that First Nations communities receive is less than the support other Canadians receive. While the Prime Minister made a big deal of $90 million for Attawapiskat over the last five years, he neglected to mention that that $90 million needed to cover every government service provided to Attawapiskat. $50,000 per man, woman and child over five years is not a lot of money to provide education, health care, housing, roads, safe drinking water and social services. Lorraine Land calculates that every Torontonian receives roughly $24,000 every year in government spending. Yet Stephen Harper isn’t out there telling Toronto he wants his money back.

The federal government provides almost all services to First Nations communities, including health, education and social services that are normally covered by the provinces. Yet while the Canadian Social Transfer, which the federal government gives the provinces to help with the costs of social services, increases by three percent a year, transfers to Aboriginal communities are capped at two percent increases per year. Because inflation and population growth account for more than two percent a year, First Nations are receiving less money from the federal government every year, even as they are falling further and further behind the standard received by the provinces.

Finally, Canadians have a tendency to blame the victim when it comes to Aboriginal crises. Instead of acknowledging our history of colonialism and many of the problems it has caused, we make insinuations of corruption and mismanagement, we trade in stereotypes of greedy but lazy Indians, and we make racist inferences about the ability of First Nations to govern themselves. Attawapiskat has been a perfect example of this. After delaying support and acknowledgement to the community, the government responded to the crisis with a third-party manager and allegations of Attawapiskat being a black hole for government money.

It is not acceptable that our First Nations communities live in poverty, squalor and oblivion while we live in comfort and luxury on the land that we agreed to share. We need a reset on the relationship between our communities. We must do more than pay lip-service to the rights of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.

The Crown-First Nations summit held on Jan. 24 may have been a start. But the federal government needs to stop blaming the victim and needs to provide accountability for the promises we have made to Canada’s First Nations.