Remote Ojibwa reserve lies in desperate limbo
KAREN HOWLETT - From Monday's Globe and Mail - Nov 6, 2006
PIKANGIKUM, ONT. — Every morning, Dean Owen parks his truck outside the graffiti-covered cinder-block water-treatment plant in Pikangikum and fills a 26-litre blue plastic jug with drinking water. Like most of the 2,300 residents of this remote Ojibwa community in Northwestern Ontario, Mr. Owen, his wife and four children live in a tiny, wood-frame house with no bathtub, no toilet and no furnace. The windows on his house are covered in café curtains. The door to his outhouse is held shut with a large tree log propped up against it.
Canada's colonial legacy has left many aboriginal communities living in abject poverty. But even by these dismal standards, Pikangikum stands out. It doesn't have enough houses for a population that has doubled in the past 20 years. Some of the dilapidated houses with plywood covering their broken windows are individually home to as many as 18 people. The one-storey clapboard school, built in 1986 for 250 students, has 780 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12.
Makeshift classrooms have been set up in portable trailers as well as in the library and a storage room.
The geographic isolation of many native communities makes it easy for them to fall through the cracks. Pikangikum, 250 kilometres north of Kenora, is accessible only by air or water, except in winter when ice roads are built. But the reserve has its own unique problems that have made matters worse.
The community's elders trace the state of limbo throughout the reserve to 2001, when the federal government stripped the band council of several management powers because it said local leaders were not able to manage the reserve's mounting social problems. Since then, it is as though somebody simply forgot about the place.
Pete Sarsfield, the head of the Northwestern Health Unit in Kenora who blew the whistle on Pikangikum's water crisis, said the reserve ranks right up there with Davis Inlet, the native community in Newfoundland and Labrador whose epidemic of drug abuse and teen suicide was revealed to the world in the early 1990s.
"I've been around the block," he said. "I've been to about 200 First Nations communities. This is one of the worst I've seen."
Dr. Sarsfield said health-care workers have found a higher incidence of gastrointestinal, skin and urinary tract infections on the reserve, compared with other aboriginal communities. In July, several young children suffering from kidney problems in Pikangikum had to be taken far from home for emergency medical care. Brian Peters, the school's janitor, said his seven-year-old son spent two weeks in a hospital in Winnipeg.
Native leaders say Pikangikum is one of three reserves in Ontario with a drinking-water crisis. Attawapiskat, a Cree community on the James Bay coast, recently declared a state of emergency. In Marten Falls, about 700 kilometres northwest of Sudbury, sewage waste has leaked into a river where the community gets its drinking water.
The crises reveal that little has been done to improve the quality of drinking water on reserves since a year ago when more than half the residents of Kashechewan were airlifted out. All four communities are part of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation. Of the 49 reserves across the North it represents, 19 are under boil-water advisories.
In Pikangikum, the community's elders say the appalling, overcrowded living conditions make it a warehouse for social problems. This year alone, there have been 23 suicides on the 49 Nishnawbe reserves, including six in Pikangikum.
As his truck approaches a curve in the gravel road leading to the Northern Store, Mr. Owen slows and points to the large tree beside Pikangikum Lake where Tracy Quill ended her life. Tracy, a shy, quiet girl who liked to make beaded artwork, attached a rope to a tree branch and hanged herself on a warm day last July. She was 12 years old.
Tragically, Tracy is not alone. Three teenage boys killed themselves within days of each other in January. And in September, two women met a similar fate, including a 33-year-old teaching assistant on the reserve's only school.
Their deaths have left the tight-knit community, where most residents speak the traditional Ojibway language, deeply shaken.
"It just saddens me," said Mr. Owen, a 35-year-old former chief of Pikangikum. "It breaks my heart."
In 2001, it was Pikangikum's dubious status as Canada's suicide capital that led Ottawa to appoint an outside company to manage its financial affairs. The reserve fought the move in court and won. A federal court ruled in 2002 that the government's dealings with the reserve were "patently unreasonable."
But Pikangikum remained under outside management for another three years. And all the infrastructure projects under way at that time came to an abrupt halt, remaining in limbo to this day.
The water plant where Mr. Owen fetches his drinking water was built in 1995, but only 20 of the 387 houses on the reserve are connected to it, leaving the rest without water and sewage services. The large blue pipes that were supposed to connect homes to the water-treatment plant sit discarded in fields around the reserve, stacked in bundles. Many residents get their drinking water from Pikangikum Lake.
The transformer purchased by the reserve to connect the community to the electricity power grid in Red Lake sits idle. The hydro poles that were supposed to form a transmission line to Red Lake, 100 kilometres south, lie rotting on the ground. Pikangikum relies on four diesel generators for its electricity. But this is not adequate and there are frequent blackouts. Firewood is used for heating.
Indian Affairs officials said privately that progress at Pikangikum has been hindered because the reserve has a history of frequent changes in leadership. They said it takes time for a new chief to become familiar with the issues. Mr. Owen, for example, resigned as chief in April after only 14 months.
Native leaders asked Dr. Sarsfield at the health unit to conduct the study of its water and sewage systems. Mr. Owen said this was the community's cry for help.
"Our community is in a major crisis," he said. But instead of getting any help from government officials, all they do is point fingers at each other, he said. "As long as they're doing that, we're suffering."
In the wake of Dr. Sarsfield's report, which was tabled in the Ontario legislature by New Democrat Leader Howard Hampton, the department has agreed to provide $2.1-million in short-term funding. The money will be used to install water storage tanks at many houses or use trucks to deliver water.
"Obviously these are issues that can't be resolved in nine months," said Bill Rodgers, a spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice. "My main concern is the more immediate problem."
Mr. Hampton said the Ontario government also has a duty to act because it is responsible for drinking water in the province. But talks between Ottawa and Ontario aimed at resolving the drinking-water problems on reserves have all but stalled after federal-provincial relations hit a new low last week. Mr. Prentice refused to meet with his Ontario counterpart, David Ramsay, citing Premier Dalton McGuinty's "political grandstanding."
Amid the finger-pointing between Ottawa and Ontario, the community's elders worry that the short-term funding will be just a Band-Aid solution and that not much will change. In the meantime, members of the community, renowned for their resiliency, make the best of a bad situation. At the school, shop teacher Pete Charbonneau's students make things the community needs desperately. The Grade 11 boys are building wooden outhouses. The Grade 11 girls are making wooden sleighs to transport water and other supplies.
Mr. Charbonneau, who came to Pikangikum from Sudbury three years ago, sees the problems afflicting the community's youth first-hand. One of his students, a 16-year-old girl, is in a hospital after she tried to kill herself.
"None of them dream," he said.
It is the community's elders who represent the thin line between hope and despair. Their dream is to one day have the community control its vast timber wealth.
For the past decade, the elders have worked to establish a plan to manage the traditional land of the Ojibwa and set the pace and direction of development. Those efforts culminated in July when the native-owned Whitefeather Forest Management Corp. signed a land-use deal with Ontario that will one day see the reserve reap the financial rewards of harvesting the wood on its land. The plan is undergoing an environmental assessment.
Employees of Whitefeather, which operates out of an office in Pikangikum's only hotel, have made maps, meticulously identifying more than 11,000 summer and winter trails on the 1.3-million hectare pristine wilderness site. They have also done an inventory of every tree, a process that took three summers to complete.
"Our community has solely depended on government handouts," said Paddy Peters, a former chief who runs Whitefeather. "This will create prosperity and success for our people."
The upcoming UN resolution adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is creating problems for the federal government who first voted against it at the committee level. In the House of Commons on Friday, the INAC rep once again side stepped a direct question concerning the adoption of the declaration (see the exchange after the AFN press release). Review the declaration from the link at the end of this KNEWS story.
Press Release from ...
UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Conservative government increasingly isolated in its unprincipled opposition to vital human rights instrument
OTTAWA, Nov. 2 /CNW Telbec/ - With the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples set to receive final consideration and historic adoption by the UN General Assembly, Aboriginal peoples and human rights organizations in Canada are welcoming a show of support by the three parties representing the majority of Canadian parliamentarians.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on Aboriginal Affairs adopted a resolution calling on the government to support the immediate adoption of the Declaration. The seven committee members representing the Liberals, Bloc Québécois and NDP supported the resolution, while the three Conservative members opposed.
This week, the Declaration is being debated at a Committee of the UN General Assembly. If supported by the Third Committee, the Declaration, which has already been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, will pass to the plenary of the General Assembly for adoption by December of this year.
The Declaration, which provides minimum standards for the dignity, survival and well-being of the world's Indigenous peoples, has been under discussion within the United Nations for more than two decades.
In recent years, Canada had played a key role role in the negotiation of the Declaration and has collaborated with Indigenous peoples to draft a number of the provisions that have been critical in building support among other states.
However, since the election of the Conservative government, Canada has joined with the United States, Australia and New Zealand in denouncing provisions that Canada had previously supported.
In June 2006, the Commons Aboriginal Affairs Committee adopted a resolution calling on the government to support the Declaration at the first meeting of the new UN Human Rights Council. Canadian representatives to the Council instead led the opposition to the Declaration but were able to convince only one other Council member, Russia, to join Canada in voting against the Declaration.
The Conservative government has slowly disclosed a long list of articles that it wants rewritten. However, its arguments to date do not stand up to scrutiny. Nor has it been able to convincingly explain why Canada has reversed its previous position in support of the Declaration.
Indigenous peoples and human rights organizations say that the government should uphold Canada's international reputation, respect the will of Parliament and support the Declaration. However, the Conservative government has rigidly refused to consult Indigenous peoples on this crucial human rights issue and has already announced that Canada will continue to vote against the Declaration.
The Declaration is urgently needed as a major step towards addressing the widespread human rights violations affecting Indigenous peoples globally.
/For further information: Media Contacts: Beth Berton-Hunter, Amnesty International Media Officer, (416) 363-9933 ext 32; Bryan Hendry, Assembly of First Nations, A/Director of Communications, (613) 241-6789 ext 229; Adiat Junaid, Communications Coordinator, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, (416) 463-5312 ext 223; Jennifer Preston, Canadian Friends Service Committee, (416) 920-5213; Linda Kayseas, Native Women's Association of Canada Media Coordinator, (613) 722-3033, ext. 231; Louis Moubarak, Rights & Democracy, (514) 283-6073, ext. 261; Also endorsed by Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada and Ligue des droits et libertés./
Ms. Jean Crowder (Nanaimo—Cowichan, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, the world is paying attention to how poorly the government is treating first nations. This week, Iran, notorious for its human rights abuses, called Canada to task for its treatment of aboriginal peoples.
It is shameful that the government has decided to abandon 20 years of work and vote against the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Will the government commit to supporting the declaration and resolving the situation in Caledonia so that Canada can hold its head up at the United Nations instead of lowering it with shame?
Mr. Rod Bruinooge (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, our government will take absolutely no lectures from the government of Iran on the rights of aboriginals in our country.
We are moving forward for aboriginal Canadians and for families that have not seen matrimonial real property. We are moving forward with a plan that will bring forward human rights where they have not been before.
We are very proud of the action being taken by the minister.
For background information and the content of the declaration download a copy from http://www.tebtebba.org/tebtebba_files/hrc/hrc1/HRCResol.pdf