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A tale of two reserves

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One cannot ignore the fact the history of Attawapiskat is eerily similar to a First Nation in Manitoba that made similar headlines about five years ago.

Both Pukatawagan and Attawapiskat were contaminated by diesel spills from faulty storage tanks in the 1970s. Housing stock and community facilities had to be destroyed and both communities have had to deal with severe hardships due to overcrowding and health concerns, which can be traced directly back to the damage caused by the contamination.

Pukatawagan struggled through hard times and was once called "Dodge City of the North." The community, also known as the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, was placed in co-management.

But in 2007, the people of Puk elected a young, hard-working, university-educated chief, Arlen Dumas, whose first action was to get his community out of co-management and make sure financial statements were available to community members in a transparent, accountable system.

Chief Dumas and band council have also been able to arrange compensation for the physical damage from the diesel spills in the form of a $17-million settlement that has been put in a trust fund to leverage the financing necessary to build a new governance centre, an elders residence and housing.

Dumas and council have also been able to build 46 new housing units, install three new playgrounds, arrange for a University College of the North regional centre, a train waiting station and much more through sheer hard work and ingenuity.

In Attawapiskat, fingers of blame are being pointed everywhere as neither the Harper government nor local leadership can account for or explain why the situation there has deteriorated so badly despite claims of massive amounts of federal funding.

The bottom line is that some families, including children, are living in tents and tar paper shacks with a cold Canadian winter approaching.

But here's the rub.

While Dumas and his council have made remarkable progress in Pukatawagan, the situation remains egregious.

The community still requires 160 houses to alleviate the overcrowding that still exists; there is little or no money to upgrade existing housing stock, the community's infrastructure needs expensive repairs; the availability of health care lags far behind similar-sized mainstream Canadian communities even though Dumas and council have managed to get their Nikawiy Health Centre designated the only First Nations nursing station to be accredited in Canada; and, well, the community simply lags behind similar-sized communities in almost every single aspect of social and economic development.

And the salaries paid to chief and council are completely reasonable!

There are 100 other First Nations communities in Canada with Third World conditions. Today the attention is on Attawpiskat because their tents and tar paper shacks don't have running water.

Neither do the shanties at Island Lake. And the people who are living 20 to 25 to a house in Pukatawagan and showering in shifts don't have it that much better.

No matter what progress these First Nations make under the current system, it is never going to be enough to keep up and most will slide back.

The only way out of this mess and the only way to achieve social and economic justice and equality is to make First Nations full and equal partners in the future development of the land which treaty partners agreed to share and fulfil the obligations that Canada made when First Nations agreed to share the land.

The northern community of The Pas has nice homes and paved roads because of profits from forestry. Thompson and Flin Flon did the same with mining royalties.

But First Nations were excluded from royalties or partnerships producing profits and all the training and employment that has gone on in the past.

The Inuit of Nunavut, where new territory is being opened up for development, recently signed an agreement for 12 per cent royalties from mining, which can be used to provide clean, safe running water, clean, safe housing and clean, safe roads. And money for future investment in those mining developments, which provide profits and jobs and those royalties.

The socio-economic problems of 100 First Nations in the North cannot be solved by spending $80 million or $90 million over six years in each community or whatever figures the feds want to throw around.

That's the "Indian Affairs approach."

It has never worked.

Don Marks is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg specializing in First Nations topics.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2011 A13

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