The Council of Canadians was invited on Tuesday to speak at an event in Ottawa about the housing crisis in Attawapiskat organized by Kairos and Centretown United.
While I spoke about the water crisis as a water campaigner, I recognize that Attawapiskat is a much larger issue in which the lack of access to water and sanitation only highlight the depth of the injustice faced by the community for decades. The housing crisis in Attawapiskat is a not an accident or an isolated incident. Attawapiskat is a natural outcome of Canada’s violent colonial past and racist present.
The ideology aggressively pursued by the Harper government is not neutral when it comes to race and gender. Harper is very deliberately building a world in which powerful white guys get richer and Indigenous children are more likely to go without access to water.
The Occupy movement is a testament to a generation that rejects the myth of trickle-down economics and the (North) American dream that promises upward mobility for those who work or dream hard enough. It is hard to believe that anyone would buy into the idea that the Irvings of New Brunswick or Paul Desmarais of Quebec going from filthy rich to filthy richer will somehow trickle down to those living without heat and water in Attawapiskat.
A recent OECD study showed that the gap between rich and poor in Canada is widening. The report found that in 2008, the top 10 per cent of Canadians, 10 times more than the bottom 10 per cent and that during this time of economic crisis for the rest of us, the very richest of Canadians, the top 0.1 per cent, had their share of income more than double, to 5.3 per cent from 2 per cent in 1980.
While funding to all other public services is being mercilessly slashed, billions of dollars will be spent on building prisons over the coming years to accommodate an increase in the rates of incarceration resulting from Harper’s tough-on-crime policies. Actual crime rates are at an all time low and have been on the decline for years. Although $2.1 billion were pledged over five years in the last federal budget, parliamentary Budget Chief Kevin Page told the Canadian Press last year that the tougher rules “could raise total prison costs to $9.5 billion a year in 2015-2016 from $4.4 billion this year. It could require the construction of as many as a dozen new prisons.”
Back to the race and gender impacts of Harper’s agenda. A Cree elder at Tuesday’s event spoke about the high rates of incarceration of Indigenous people.
According to a 2007 paper by the Native Women’s Association of Canada Aboriginal women are the fastest growing population of federally incarcerated prisoners. While they represent only 3 per cent of the population, in 2007 they made up nearly 30 per cent of the population of federally incarcerated women. In 2005, Prison Justice Canada estimated that a federally incarcerated female prisoner cost $150,000-$250,000 per prisoner/per year or the estimated cost of a new house in Attawapiskat. The vast majority are first time offenders imprisoned for petty crimes such as shoplifting.
With regards to water, Maude Barlow argued in a recently published paper examining Canada’s obligations vis-a-vis the human right to water and sanitation that First Nations’ homes are 90 per cent more likely to be without running water than the homes of other Canadians. According to Health Canada, as of Oct. 31 2011, 127 native communities were under a drinking water advisory. And according to the national assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater systems, 39 per cent of water systems on First Nations reserves were classified as high risk. The high risk water systems affect 25 per cent of the on-reserve population base.
To address this critical situation, the Council of Canadians is calling for $1 billion to be spent this fiscal year to build, upgrade and maintain water and wastewater infrastructure in First Nation communities (as well as $1 billion in 2012-13 and 2013-14). The additional funding allocated this year in the federal budget for drinking water on First Nations reserves was a meagre $165 million. Given the severity of the crisis on First Nations communities, the Harper government might as well be handing out magic beans.
And not only will First Nations communities have to make infrastructure miraculously appear with the peanuts the federal government has thrown at them, there may be penalties for not meeting regulatory standards.
Bill S-11, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, reveals how the federal government plans to address the drinking water crisis on reserves. The bill which died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved set unattainable regulations for First Nations drinking water and wastewater systems. S-11 established fines, regulations, terms of imprisonment, the power to seize and detain things from communities that failed to meet standards.
The bill also gave the federal government the authority to force First Nations communities to hand over control to “third parties” which would open the door to multinational corporations seeking access to public water and sanitation services in Canada. There are strong concerns that this bill will be reintroduced in some form or other.
The resolve of the community of Attawapiskat is an inspiration at this time when all we can do is resist. I applaud the community for kicking out the “third party manager” the Harper government appointed in an outrageous public relations stunt to try and change the narrative from humanitarian crisis to one of mismanaged accounts. The same prime minister who stood up in the House of Commons to defend Minister Peter McKay’s penchant for travelling in challenger jets and helicopters had the gall to accuse the community of mishandling public money.
If only we could appoint a third party manager to handle the Harper government for mismanaging public funds to serve the interests of the wealthy few and for failing in its obligations to respect its human rights and treaty rights obligations.
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