Answering questions about Attawapiskat

An expert in Aboriginal health offers his insights

Chief Theresa Spence from the Northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat recently declared a state of emergency. Living conditions in the community have deteriorated to a degree that has shocked many Canadians. The conditions there have garnered national attention and an outpouring of donations. Writer Anjum Nayyar spoke to Professor Chandrakant Shah, Professor Emeritus at U of T's Dalla Lana School of Public Health who specializes in Aboriginal health, about this issue. 

Q. For those who aren’t aware of the Attawapiskat community, how large is it and what are some of its biggest health challenges?

A. There are about 2,000 people in that community. Like most reserves, the health challenges are similar and they are related to infectious disease related to overcrowding and housing. These are: respiratory illnesses, pneumonia, TB and influenza. They are also suffering from chronic stress due to housing shortages, unemployment and low income. There is also suicide and diabetes.

Q. The NDP MP whose riding includes Attawapiskat says the federal government is provoking a political showdown with the reserve. What are your thoughts on this?

A. As a Canadian and someone who’s been studying this population for some time, I think
Aboriginal people are not seen and they’re not heard in this country. The Kelowna Accord was signed with a lot of fanfare and when Harper came in 2005, he reneged on a lot of the promises.  It’s the community themselves that have declared an emergency, not the NDP.  These are his constituents, and it’s a very legitimate duty of a member of parliament to take the plight of his community.

Q. How urgent is the situation in this area as far as the health of community members? What type of medical care is available locally? How far away is the nearest hospital?

A. Medical care is provided by nurses, because on the reserve it’s the federal jurisdiction to provide healthcare. In most of these places there are no specialists or access to physiotherapists, so they go to Ottawa, etc. For high risk pregnancies, for example, they would fly to a hospital in Kingston or Ottawa. The nearest hospital is a couple of hours flight away.

Q. The federal government has stated it intends to re-introduce the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which will for the first time create enforceable standards for drinking water on reserves. Do you think this is a little too late or do you think this will be effective?

A. There was already an introduction of safe water in the first nations reserve in the past in the First Nations Act. But I hope the government takes a look at why didn’t this work the first time. I’m a sceptic because they’ve talked about this in the past.   I’m not sure whether this will be effective or not.

Q. What can be done quickly to improve the situation in Attawapiskat or prevent it from deteriorating as the weather gets worse and flu season begins?
The best thing is to do now is to stop quibbling and rather than get into who did what and so forth, if you really want to do something, do it. Stop waiting. When the Haiti crisis occurred everyone packed their bags and went there to do what needed to be done and then worried after about whether the government was a corrupt government or not. The people are there and you have to look after the people there rather than fighting about what’s happening.

Q. This is being considered a housing crisis, but it didn’t happen overnight. What factors led to this situation?

A. Benign neglect on the part of the federal government. The housing issue has been there for a long time. This year, because of the weather, it has come to a stage where the houses can’t take any more wear and tear.