Editorial, Toronto Star, Aug 3, 2012
When people in a Northern Ontario community were living in tents and overcrowded shacks without running water or proper heating, they could have used a housing expert or maybe a builder with a load of quality supplies. Even a grocer with boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables would have come in handy. But Ottawa’s response to this situation in the First Nations community of Attawapiskat last winter (20011/12) was to send in a third-party manager, essentially an accountant to look at the books.
Ottawa blamed for scuttling plan
Minister doesn’t back loans in proposal for building 30 homes
By Les Whittington, Toronto Star, Aug 11, 2012
OTTAWA— A plan to build muchneeded houses in Attawapiskat fell through because of lack of support from Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, leaders in the northern Ontario aboriginal community revealed Friday.
Acting Chief Christine Kataquapit said an application to Canada’s national housing agency for help financing the construction of 30 houses in Attawapiskat was not approved because Duncan refused to sign off on an agreement between Attawapiskat and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). And Kataquapit said the letter from CMHC ruling out financial support for the housing plan was written Aug. 2, a day after a Federal Court judge gave the Harper government a black eye over its decision to send a third-party manager into Attawapiskat last year.
The community had applied for support to build houses under CMHC’s non-profit, on-reserve housing program, which provides loans to First Nations to build or rehabilitate rental units. The loans are insured under the National Housing Act and must be guaranteed by Duncan, minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development.
Kataquapit said CMHC’s Aug. 2 letter said Attawapiskat’s application for funding was being rejected because of the inability to obtain a ministerial loan guarantee for the planned housing project.
“We were disappointed to receive the letter that we were not selected because we are still scrounging around for housing units for our members and there’s a shortfall,” she said in an interview.
A spokesperson for Duncan said the government is waiting for the Attawapiskat First Nation to submit a housing plan. “Given that the First Nation still has not submitted a housing plan, they were unable to demonstrate the necessary capacity for the department to approve their request for a loan guarantee,” said Jason MacDonald. “The department continues to offer to assist the First Nation in the development of a long-term housing strategy.”
Attawapiskat, a community of 2,000 on the edge of James Bay, attracted national attention after it declared a state of emergency last fall when a severe housing shortage left more than two dozen families facing the winter in flimsy, uninsulated temporary shelters. Responding to a storm of criticism, Ottawa spent more than $3 million to provide emergency shelter, including 22 new mobile homes to relieve the crisis.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at the time the reserve’s leaders had mishandled $90 million in government support over five years. Harper called for an audit of the band’s books and sent in a third-party manager to assert control over Attawapiskat’s financial affairs. Attawapiskat went to court to challenge the decision to parachute in a third-party manager. On Aug. 1, the Federal Court sided with the First Nation, saying Ottawa’s decision to send in a third-party manager was “unreasonable.” Justice Michael Phelan also said the government had not produced evidence of financial mismanagement on the reserve.
Asked if she thought Duncan’s refusal to provide a loan guarantee had anything to do with that ruling, Kataquapit said, “I listened to the news where they were saying that Duncan said (the federal government) was disappointed that Attawapiskat won.” But she said community leaders haven’t yet asked Duncan to explain why Attawapiskat didn’t get the loan guarantee required by CMHC.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Attawapiskat, said the chain of events raises questions about the government’s attitude toward improving the situation in Attawapiskat. The plan that fell through “would have gone a long way toward alleviating any housing crisis in that community,” he said.