I’m grateful former prime minister Jean Chretien mused this week that people in Attawapiskat should move.
Asked about the state of emergency over a spate of suicides in the beleaguered James Bay first nation, Chretien, who once served as what was then called Indian Affairs minister, said:
“People have to move sometimes. It’s desirable to stay if they want to stay but it’s not always possible.”
That struck a chord with me because earlier this week, provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer had waxed on about the terrible conditions in Attawapiskat — the despair, the isolation, the lack of economic opportunity.
I asked Zimmer the obvious question: Is the community sustainable?
He got quite huffy.
“These communities have lived in the remotes in Attawapiskat and other places in the far north for thousands of years,” he said.
“They want to live on the land and this government, and I am sure the federal government, is not going to get into the business of telling people they have to leave their homes and they have to move somewhere else, which is perhaps the suggestion in your question.”
Now a former Liberal PM has said the same thing, so I feel vindicated.
Zimmer said the solution is to make these communities economically viable.
The First Nation is just 90 km from the De Beers Victor diamond mine and do-gooders point to that as the solution.
Why can’t the First Nation people get jobs there? The answer is that they do.
I visited the mine shortly after it opened, so I have a sense of what De Beers has done for Attawapiskat and another troubled first nation, Kashechewan.
Out of about 555 jobs at the mine, between De Beers and contractors, 155 are First Nation workers and 105 are from Attawapiskat. Almost a third of the 3,000 construction workers who built the mine were First Nation.
There’s no year-round road across the swampy muskeg from Attawapiskat to the mine. It’s like driving from Oshawa to Barrie — with no road. De Beers flies in workers from four First Nations.
The mining giant has helped ease the housing crisis by bringing in construction trailers, furniture and appliances. They fixed the water treatment plant and brought cellphone service to Attawapiskat.
It’s short-term thinking that De Beers has all the answers. Right now, the mine is slated to shut down in 2018. Those jobs will go away.
Zimmer suggested the much ballyhooed Ring of Fire will bring economic opportunity to the area. Except it’s a pipe dream. The government can’t even agree on whether to build a road or a rail line into the area.
Want to help Attawapiskat? Build year-round roads out so those kids who live in despair can at least get out when they’re old enough to drive. Build sewers and schools, so they get clean water and an education.
Former Ontario cabinet minister Alan Pope was wrongly criticized for suggesting people in Kashechewan be moved to Timmins. In a 2006 report, he said remote communities must graduate their own teachers, engineers, nurses and doctors to be sustainable.
That’s not paternalism or assimilation. It’s the cold, hard truth.
The cruel thing to do is to pretend the status quo is working. As long as we do so, kids living in remote First Nations communities will continue lives of utter despair and hopelessness.