Indian Affairs minister feeling heat as Tories put brakes on native spending - SUE BAILEY for Canadian Press
OTTAWA (CP) - The desolate Kashechewan First Nation has become a flashpoint for growing frustration over Tory aboriginal policy.
That anger boiled over outside the Commons on Thursday as Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice turned his back on a confrontation with leaders representing the tiny James Bay community.
It started in the daily question period when New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes Kashechewan, challenged Prentice to recognize a Liberal-signed deal to rebuild what he called the flood-prone "rat hole" on higher ground.
Prentice refused. Instead, he countered over howls from the opposition that the Liberals never budgeted millions of dollars needed for the relocation.
Former Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott signed an agreement last October pledging 50 new houses a year for 10 years.
"It is shameful that the previous Liberal government would have resorted to misleading the people of Kashechewan with empty promises and with no money set aside in the budget," Prentice said Thursday in the Commons.
"It is a situation we will deal with."
Angus says the minister's staff told him that it will be at least three years before a new site is selected. Moreover, funding expected this summer to repair existing homes and to study potential sites has been cancelled, he said.
Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday says he's worried that any delay will provoke residents, especially young people, to acts of civil disobedience.
"This government is trying to send my people back to that same shit hole that we've been out of for the last months," Friday said moments after Prentice refused to debate the matter in front of reporters and walked away.
"What are we going to do?"
Despite Prentice's claims that money was never budgeted, Friday says about $9 million had arrived in the community since the rebuilding deal was signed last fall. It was used to repair several homes, some of which were redamaged in the most recent flood.
The Cree community was moved against its will by Ottawa to the low-lying land in 1957.
More than 1,400 residents were evacuated for the third time in two years last month. They are now scattered among temporary homes in several northern Ontario cities and towns.
Spring flooding caused sewage backups in buildings, tainted drinking water and shut down hydro. This, after photos of Kashechewan toddlers riddled with skin infections blamed on dirty water made international headlines last fall.
Angus says he and Kashechewan leaders worked for months with the Conservatives trying to iron out details of a new plan.
"If we could (tell) the community, 'Yes, the minister needs more time but recognizes the (Liberal) agreement,' we'd be more than willing to go back and tell the people to be patient," Angus said.
"He has had ample opportunity to find the money and come up with a plan. He has done nothing."
Prentice insisted he is willing to continue talks with Kashechewan leaders.
"We have to patch that together, make it workable and livable and accelerate it as we can," he said when asked what residents are supposed to do in the meantime.
"Clearly, we have to move forward with a permanent solution."
Aboriginal issues may not be one of the Tory government's stated five priorities, but they've quickly become a political headache.
Prentice has taken heat since the maiden Conservative budget gutted a $5.1-billion plan signed by the former Liberal government, native leaders and all premiers to raise aboriginal living standards over 10 years.
The Tory budget commits just $150 million this year and $300 million next year for such goals.
Another $600 million was earmarked for housing and aboriginal programs in the territories - but only if surplus federal funds, to be finalized in the coming months, exceed $2 billion.
© The Canadian Press, 2006