Last week, I had the honour and privilege to be the Proxy for Chief Ignace Gull of Attawapiskat First Nation at the Assembly of First Nations’ Annual General Assembly in Fredericton. On his behalf, I introduced an emergency resolution on Safe Drinking Water as a Human Right that was passed unanimously by the Chiefs in Assembly.
Almost since the time the leaders who proceeded Chief Gull signed the 1905 Treaty with Canada, Attawapiskat has lurched from crisis to crisis as a result of being under the discriminatory, and quite frankly genocidal, Indian Act which is overseen by uncaring bureaucrats in Ottawa. These crises have included ongoing unsafe water, youth suicides, drug overdoses, and overcrowded, mouldy housing.
Less than 5 years ago, a non-Indigenous third-party manager, appointed by Ottawa, was found guilty of embezzling 2 million dollars in housing funds from Attawapiskat. Today, a population of 2,000 people, most under the age of 25, continue to suffer from poverty and despair – mostly a manifestation of incompetent and dysfunctional management at the regional and national bureaucratic levels.
Every two or three years, following a protest or hunger strike, Attawapiskat makes the news and gets a few sound bites of concern from the Prime Minister that things will get better as soon as possible. But once the issue dies down, and Canadians are under the false belief that this generation of Attawapiskat children will truly enjoy their childhood, the bureaucrats in Ottawa drop the file. Because, after all, First Nation issues are viewed as faceless files, not life and death human rights issues.
Last week, I was also able to address the latest Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Seamus O’Regan, who briefly visited Attawapiskat a week ago to tell everyone that “Canada cares” and “we will do better”. I reminded Minister O’Regan that after his visit, dozens of women and children marched in Attawapiskat, with signs declaring, “Our Kids Matter, Water is Life” and, “Our People are Dying Slowly.”
You may have said that “Canada cares” but clean water is a human rights issue. Yes, Canada cares when there are water issues in Gander, Newfoundland or in Fredericton, New Brunswick. If there are municipal water issues, they are fixed without delay. If there are First Nation water issues, they linger for years, for decades. Far too many of our children and adults are living with the poor health, cancer, and scars of drinking and bathing in polluted water.
Canada cares so much about our Peoples that you are sending extra bottled water.
Let me remind you that one of your Liberal Minister predecessors – Andy Scott – from right here in Fredericton – refused to drink the water the last time he visited a First Nation community with unsafe water. That was about 20 years ago.
Twenty years from now, we do not want to see the same problems, the same suffering by our children.
Ending boil water advisories is just one small step. You need to show that Canada cares by investing in the proper infrastructure – from clean water to healthy homes.
No more words. No more band-aids. We need results now. This will be true reconciliation in action.