Another Attawapiskat evacuation

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For the second time this year the community of Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency after an infrastructure failure led to a sewage backup in multiple homes in the community.

Though the community appealed to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada for aid in evacuating the residents of the contaminated homes, INAC refused stating that this was a housing issue and that the displaced should be relocated locally, according to Chief Theresa Hall.

“We do have an agreement with the federal and provincial governments stating that the Chief and Council have the authority to declare a state of emergency and that they would come through to assist financially. They are now in breach of that agreement by not assisting us. Especially when this is now a health issue and a safety issue. Those who breathed in fumes from the sewer said that they were getting headaches, vomiting and experiencing cramps and diarrhea. When people are exposed to that they could end up with liver diseases and this is why we wanted a health screening to check the people who have been exposed,” said Chief Hall.

Despite the fact that a Dr. Green from Health Canada informed the affected residents in Attawapiskat that they must vacate the contaminated homes, HC has refused to help with a community screening to see if anyone’s health has been jeopardized by the crisis.

Chief Hall was also alarmed by the fact that she was told to relocate the affected residents locally as it was simply an impossible feat. She said that in Attawapiskat there are many situations where up to 30 people share a five-bedroom home and cannot house a single other individual.

Attawapiskat residents were evacuated on charter planes to the northern Ontario community of Cochrane on July 25 and they have remained there ever since. The displaced are staying in cramped motel rooms as the community can only afford so many. Unfortunately, the community had to pay over $160,000 for the evacuation and the accommodations out of their own pocket – and that is excluding the cost of the charter planes.

In the meantime, INAC has been taking care of the cleanup of the affected homes while the community itself is repairing their own healing lodge that will accommodate a fraction of those displaced.

“Indian Affairs is supposed to be in charge of cleaning up the basements but after the sewer waste gets into the walls, the smell will be there forever and this is the state that we are in. I believe that those homes are now ruined and that we will need brand new homes to replace them,” said Hall.

Chief Hall is concerned for the students staying in Cochrane as some will start the school year away from home and others will be displaced from their families to attend school back in the community.

Attawapiskat had declared another state of emergency back in March after the elementary school that INAC had built 30 years earlier over a diesel spill was demolished. This resulted in toxic fumes emanating into the nearby temporary elementary school portable trailers and beyond. INAC refused aid to the community then too and refused to evacuate those affected despite their extreme physical reactions to the toxic mess.

The community of Attawapiskat will not be going down without a fight. On August 10, the displaced residents put on a traffic slowdown in Cochrane to hand-out pamphlets and raise awareness to their cause. On August 11, some of the community members also traveled to Toronto to stage a protest in front of INAC’s building there and later on that day in Queen’s Park. On August 20, many of them staged a peaceful protest on Parliament Hill.

At the time of the Nation’s interview with Chief Hall, there were also plans to stage a protest in front of DeBeers Canada on August 19, the diamond mining corporation that operates a mine on their nearby traditional lands.

“When DeBeers puts out press releases they always say that they are bringing $65 million to our community, but they are misleading the public. That money goes to our joint ventures and to some local businesses. By the time they pay out their expenses and the joint ventures we might see about 2.5 per cent of the profits,” said Chief Hall.

Attawapiskat would like to see some of the wealth that DeBeers generates off their land actually have a positive impact on the community.

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