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      Attawapiskat & Fort McMurray:
      2 Canadian Crises, 2 Unequal Responses

      By Tamara Hansen

      Last week I read a Huffington Post headline: “Attawapiskat And Fort McMurray Prove Not All Crises Are Seen As Equal”. I thought, ‘Wow I want to write an article with that title’! Of course, I could not just take the headline of award-winning journalist Nick Fillmore, but I will borrow some of his research and points in order to build and develop a working class case.

      Attawapiskat & Fort McMurray: 2 Crises

      Since the beginning of this year I have been writing articles for Fire This Time Newspaper with a strong focus on the challenges facing Indigenous people in Canada today, including my article in our last issue, “Have you heard of Attawapiskat?”(FTT V10I5). Attawapiskat is an Indigenous community of about 1,800 people in the James Bay region in Ontario, Canada. The current crisis in Attawapiskat, that has garnered national headlines, is an epidemic of youth attempting to take their own lives. In April 2016 the community of Attawapiskat declared a state on emergency after 11 people attempted to take their own lives in one night, 28 people had also tried in the month of March. However this is not the first time this community has faced major challenges. In fact, in the last 10 years, this small community has had to declare 5 different states of emergency: the water crisis, the sewage crisis, the housing crisis, the flooding crisis, and now, most recently, the youth suicide crisis. Unfortunately the native youth suicide epidemic is also not limited to Attawapiskat; in the last three months at least 3 First Nations communities in Canada have declared a ‘state of emergency’ due to horrifyingly high numbers of suicides and attempted suicides. In a CBC article from April 16, 2016 a fourth Indigenous community, Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario, reminded Canada that it has been under a ‘state of emergency’ for 3 years due to high levels of suicide. The chief, Wayne Moonias, refuses to stop sounding the alarm until the root causes of the crisis are addressed.

      While these states of emergencies have been declared, we heard about another tragedy happening in Canada. In the first week of May 2016, over 88,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada as forest fires had engulfed much of their community. According to a 2015 Wood Buffalo municipal census (Fort McMurray is part of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo) the region counts 125,032 inhabitants. It has been estimated that about 1 in 5 homes in Fort McMurray were destroyed by the fires last month and many still have not been able to return to their still-standing homes due to the toxic ash covering the area. Remarkably, no one died in the fires in Fort McMurray, although two people were unfortunately killed in a road accident while evacuating the town.

      Both McMurray and Attawapiskat represent real tragedies for the people of Canada. Both communities deserve our help, support and solidarity in their time of need. However, the response to these two tragedies has been markedly different, especially by governments. Also the causes of these two crises are quite different: one is Mother Nature and the other, I would argue, is the longstanding racist policies of the government of Canada.

      Attawapiskat & Fort McMurray: 2 unequal government responses

      In his aforementioned article in the Huffington Post, Nick Fillmore explains his perspective: “By the time Fort McMurray is rebuilt, it’s likely that governments will have spent $2 billion or more. Donations from Canadians will reach into the millions. And a representative of one of the big insurance companies estimated they will be required to pay as much as $9 billion to restore homes and businesses. I have no quarrel with anything that is being done to help the people and community of Fort McMurray. The destruction and emotional distress suffered by residents is taking a heavy toll. Like thousands of other folks, I have made a financial contribution. What I do object to is that, in comparison, the federal and Ontario governments are doing practically nothing and spending a pittance to alleviate the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, a poverty- stricken, isolated community of 2,000 located 720 kilometres north of Sudbury.”

      Before the fires were even put out in Fort McMurray the Red Cross, private companies and governments were already pitching in to help those who had lost everything. People across Canada saw the emergency on the news and social media and were quickly given websites and phone numbers to call to make a donation towards the cause.

      Headlines in mainstream media reported on the incoming support:

      • “Help floods in after massive blaze engulfs Fort McMurray”

      • “‘Most important cash transfer’ in Red Cross history: $600 per adult, $300 per child. Province also making pre-loaded debit cards with $1,250 per adult and $500 per child available today”

      • “South African firefighters arrive eager to help fight Fort McMurray wildfire”

      • “Red Cross to help pay for Fort McMurray residents to return home. Another $40 million has been set side to cover transportation and resettlement costs for evacuees”

      Headlines in mainstream media on Attawapiskat in comparison:

      • “A First Nations cry for help gets little government attention: Star investigation”

      • “Federal government under fire as Attawapiskat suicide crisis continues”

      • “Justin Trudeau to meet Attawapiskat chief in wake of more suicide attempts”

      • “Canada poised to embrace UN Indigenous rights declaration even as it remains under fire for Attawapiskat”

      • “New mental health workers for Attawapiskat"

      That last headline is from May 12, 2016, interestingly Health Canada could not actually say when the new health workers would be “on the ground” in Attawapiskat and do you know how many mental health workers they plan to send? According to the article, “two additional mental health workers and a case manager for youth in Attawapiskat.” So even the good news, is minimal news.

      Going back to Nick Fillmore’s article, he explains, “In April, federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett made a trip to Attawapiskat and promised funding for a new youth centre and some programming for young people. In addition, a youth delegation from the region will be invited to visit Ottawa. The Ontario government has pledged $2 million over the next two years for health support and a youth centre for the community.” He continues, “Where is the empathy in those kinds of promises? A lack of money is not the problem. The federal government is sitting on about $4 billion to be used to improve lives, particularly education facilities, on reserves. What is hard to understand is why the federal government isn’t dipping into its stashed- away billions to assist First Nations communities such as Attawapiskat.”

      There was no national Red Cross campaign, no new money promised, just the repetition that the new Liberal budget is the best budget in recent memory for native people – $8.4 billion over 5 years. But remember, as I mentioned in previous articles, much of this money comes in to play the last 2-3 years, not immediately. Besides 5 years from now there will have already been another election, so all of the money promised after the 4 year mark is a magician’s money trick that may or may not ever show up for Aboriginal people in Canada.

      At the same time, there were plenty of shortcomings in Fort McMurray too. Other countries offered to help fight the fires, such as Russia, but were turned away by the government of Canada. Also, the mandatory evacuation notice was left very late and traffic was disorganized, endangering the lives of many as we have seen from the videos posted online of people fleeing their community. So I am not arguing that Fort McMurray has had it easy or was perfectly handled by the governments of Alberta and Canada. But I am saying the support has been structured, well- funded and tremendous.

      Negligence, Ignorance and Hypocrisy for Hundreds of Years

      On May 6, the Canadian Press published an articles stating, “Premier Rachel Notley says cabinet has approved a payment of $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent at a cost to the province of $100 million.” According to a CBC article published on May 11, $67 million was donated to the Red Cross by people across Canada to Fort McMurray, as the headline mentioned above said, it totals $600 per adult and $300 per child. Additionally the CBC article explained, “more than 700 Red Cross staff and trained volunteers from across Canada are in Alberta to help evacuees at shelters, with registration, family reunification and to help meet urgent, basic needs.” On May 23, 2016 the Red Cross announced it has now received a total of $100 million in donations.

      Interestingly, Attawapiskat even donated $5000 to the Red Cross for Fort McMurray. The community held a fundraising campaign, looking past their own tragedies to try to help others. This was a heartwarming gesture and teaches us about the generosity of people living in Attawapiskat.

      This is also not to say that people across Canada have ignored the plight of Attawapiskat, tones of schools and community groups have written letters with positive messages to youth in Attawapiskat. Ottawa students are sending essential library items to the community, Sudbury students and school staff are hosting a ‘Walk for Attawapiskat’, and a Toronto high school is organizing a week-long soccer camp in Attawapiskat this summer, to mention a few examples.

      However I keep coming back to the title of Nick Fillmore’s article, “Attawapiskat And Fort McMurray Prove Not All Crises Are Seen As Equal.” Why did this title grab my heart? Because while I do not agree with all of his points, fundamentally the story is the same, there is a racist double-standard in Canada, especially when it comes to Indigenous people. Of course, I see the government of Canada as the main force creating and implementing laws and policies that have helped to justify this double-standard. However, non-Indigenous people in Canada also need to recognize their prejudices and wilful blindness to the challenges facing Indigenous communities in Canada today.

      The government of Canada has finally signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples – this document makes a lot of promises to Indigenous people around the world about respect, rights and self-determination. It is up to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to stand together to demand the government of Canada respect the Indigenous people of this land and their right to determine their own future, their right of self-determination.

      It is not time for people in Canada to dump humanitarian aid on Attawapiskat, or to heap a bunch of money onto Indigenous communities. It is time for people in Canada to listen, to really hear what Indigenous communities are asking for and to ask them what form our solidarity and support should take. It is only when Indigenous people have control over their own communities and future that they will be able to overcome.

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