The sorry situation in Attawapiskat, Ont., that’s drawing so much attention this week is, of course, nothing new. It follows much the same pattern as the fall 2005 crisis Kashechewan, another remote Cree community on the Ontario shore of James Bay.
As many will recall, the Kashechewan story was portrayed as a severe water-quality problem. The filtration plant at the reserve community of about 1,900 wasn’t working properly, briefly resulting in dangerous E. coli bacteria levels in the water. Chlorine used to kill the bacteria was then blamed for aggravating skin problems, although doctors I talked to at the time thought the lesions and rashes were caused by chronic overcrowding in abysmal housing and doubted chlorine levels mattered much.
So the truly urgent problem was, as it is in Attawapiskat, lousy housing. I wondered if anything was ever done about it, and whether Kashechewan’s experience holds any lessons for Attawapiskat. So I called Jonathan Solomon, Kashechewan’s current chief, to find out.
Solomon explained that soon after the wave of media attention that crashed over his community in fall 2005, the federal government approved a project to renovate at least 60 houses. That project went well, initially (and even won an award). Not only did it provide some decent shelter, the renovation contractors also trained local residents in valuable dry-walling and plumbing skills.
“We certainly made progress at the beginning,” Solomon said. “We did build. But for the past two years we’ve been struggling to get funding. We are told there’s no money.”
It’s not that demand has eased. Solomon says five families with children are living in “shacks” in Keshechewan, as are about 12 single adults. He would like to renovate 80 of the community’s about 200 houses. Some work is on the horizon: the federal government recently approved $450,000 for retrofits, perhaps enough to fix up another 10 or 12 homes. “We’re moving at a snail’s pace.”
It seems that keeping up real momentum is the problem. There is, however, a glimmer of hope in Kashechewan. The community’s water filtration plant—where malfunctions in 2005 led to the evacuation of a quarter of the community at an estimated cost of $16 million—is now running up to provincial standards.