By Cameron Dearlove
Waterloo Region fares relatively well with affordable housing. For those who linger up to six years on the waiting list it may not appear that way, however, we fare better than many places in the province. When we compare Waterloo Region to Attawapiskat, the difference is night and day.
Attawapiskat is a fly-in reserve along the James Bay coast, suffering through a devastating housing crisis. The situation has become dire — so dire, in fact, that Attawapiskat has called a state of emergency as families, including children and elderly, are living in uninsulated tents and shacks, without running water or plumbing, some using buckets as toilets and emptying them into nearby ditches. Winter is on its way to this sub-arctic community, and local health officials have warned of the potential for illness and infection.
Yes, this is happening in Ontario.
A housing crisis like this doesn’t happen overnight. This situation has developed through years of indifference and neglect.
In 2004, Jack Layton traveled with MP Charlie Angus to Kashechewan to see the state of on-reserve housing in Ontario. He saw multiple families crammed into small houses, many of which were in need of repair. They were to meet one individual but were told that this man was sleeping — it was the only time that a bed was available.
In 2006 I travelled to Attawapiskat and heard of similar situations. Conditions in Mushkegowuk (James Bay Cree) communities under the Harper government have gone from bad to worse.
Our governments have barely raised their eyebrows to this crisis until massive pressure by citizens, international parties, the Red Cross and even by companies like GE, forced the federal government’s hand. The state of emergency stretched on for four weeks until the Harper government pledged action. The question now will be whether this action will be substantial and enduring.
There are 304 homes for more than 2,000 residents. Many of these homes are old and in need of repair. It would require 268 houses just to deal with the immediate backlog of homelessness. So far, our government has offered a band-aid at best.
But this is one community amongst hundreds across Canada in need of a real solution. The Kelowna Accord of 2005 would have invested $5 billion into health, education and infrastructure in First Nations communities.
The Kelowna Accord was cancelled by the Harper government, situations have deteriorated, and the price tag for legitimate improvements to these communities has surely grown, another case of ideology interfering with smart, long-term planning.
Attawapiskat is a community that’s taken more than its fair share of lumps. They have fought and pleaded for over a decade to get an elementary school to replace the one left condemned by a massive diesel leak.
Schools, shelter — we don’t make people beg for these things in communities like Kitchener. Why do we deny them to First Nations children?
The irony of our governments across the country evicting the Occupy protestors from their tents while children in Attawapiskat are forced to live in tents underscores the very social injustices these protesters are standing up against.
The educational and health funding disparity, poor water quality and endemic underfunding of housing and community infrastructure is leaving a generation of First Nations people behind the rest of Canada.
I believe that our economy will only reach its potential when all of our citizens have the opportunity to reach theirs, regardless of location or ethnocultural background. Until we realize the basic needs for all of our citizens, no matter where they live, a just society will remain only a dream.
• • •
Guest columnist Cameron Dearlove is a job developer, community advocate and former NDP candidate in Kitchener Centre.