Brave Leadership Spreads Hope: Attawapiskat Takes on the Ultimate Bully

There have been countless blogs, reports, media stories and commentary on the crisis Attawapiskat First Nation located in northern Ontario on the James Bay. So many of these stories report on the current situation and few provide the historical context from which it all evolved. The purpose of this blog is simply to provide a little context and show how grass roots community members have the power to spread hope to all First Nations by their brave leadership. Attawapiskat is a First Nation community of approximately 2000 of its 3335 members live on reserve. This community is part of the larger Cree Nation and the current Chief is Theresa Spence. Attawapiskat is part of the Mushkegowuck Council (a tribal council representing eight Cree communities which is currently headed by Grand Chief Stan Louttit and represents about 10,000 First Nations people. At the regional level, Attawapiskat is represented by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (formerly known as Grand Council of Treaty 9). It is headed by Grand Chief Stan Beardy and represents over 45,000 First Nations people. This organization is affiliated with the Chiefs in Ontario which is the provincial co-ordinating body for the 134 First Nations in Ontario. All of the issues surrounding the current situation in Attawapiskat did not turn up over night, nor can Canada or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) legitimately claim that they had no idea what was happening in the community. The significant challenges faced by Attawapiskat can be traced back to the diesel spill in 1979 that was never remedied by INAC. (Although INAC purported to change its name to Aboriginal Affairs, the act still says Department of Indian Affairs). In 1979, the largest diesel spill in northern Ontario occurred from underground pipes which leaked under their reserve lands. INAC did not remediate this environmental hazard, but instead, INAC built a school for the community on these contaminated lands. The school itself ended up acting like a cap for the nearly 30,000 gallons of diesel just underneath the surface. The toxic diesel fumes made both teachers and students so ill that the school had to be closed. In 2000-2001, the band closed the school and also declared a state of emergency in order to get INAC to build a proper school on lands that were not contaminated. INAC refused and left children to attend school in cold, moldy, run-down portables. This is how the world came to know Shannen Koostachin – the brave little girl who would not give up on her dream of a safe, clean school for her community. Her campaign came to be known as Shannen’s Dream. When NDP MP Charlie Angus was elected in 2004, he too joined the cause and advocated strenuously for Canada to act immediately and address the lack of a school in Attawapiskat. Despite all the efforts, promises made by former Ministers Nault, Scott and Prentice all went unfulfilled. This lead Shannen and her fellow community members to meet with then Minister Chuck Strahl to explain how important a school was for their community. It was this Minister, under the newly empowered dictatorial “Harper Government” (also known as Canada) that finally confirmed that NO new school would be built. Minister Strahl, being too busy to meet for long with Shannen, he said that he did not have any money for a school. This did not deter Shannen or her supporters. Despite her subsequent tragic passing, grass roots members at Attawapiskat, Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS), MP Charlie Angus and others have continued to lobby for a school. In May 2011, after much domestic and international pressure and political embarrassment, INAC seemed to reconsider its position and issued its fourth promise to Attawapiskat to build the school. There was a great deal of public celebration over this victory, but it is now 8 months later and construction for the school has not been started. INAC claims it will break ground sometime in 2013, but time will tell. The school has not been the only issuing plaguing Attawapiskat. In early 2005, the De Beers Mining company decided to dump their sewage sludge into Attawapiskat’s sewage pumping station. As a result, the system was overwhelmed and sewage backed up into community homes. A subsequent engineering report noted that Canada knew about the situation and did not take steps to address the immediate crisis or to remediate the environmental hazard. Because INAC refused to offer emergency aid to this community is crisis, the struggling First Nation was forced to evacuate its residents and pay the bill itself, thus resulting in a major debt. NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus explained that the band ran up a debt from flying people out of the community and putting them in hotels. Residents simply could not stay in homes full of raw sewage, and the First Nation was forced into a tough decision given INAC’s refusal to assist them. They declared a state of emergency in early 2009 to refocus attention on the nearly ten years without a school. At that time, the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Chuck Strahl, was shocked by the declaration of the sate of emergency: “…they’ve issued this (state of emergency) and I’m not sure what it means or why it has been done.” The declaration was made not just because of the school, but also because of the water infrastructure needs and the major environmental and health issue associated with the De Beers sewage back-up in their community. Strahl went on to express that there were no health issues, that he was aware of the situation on the ground and that “Every indication is it’s all good”. He went on to guarantee that INAC would ensure that everything would be fine: “I’m not sure what’s going on there, but we’ll work with them to make sure it’s all fine,” said Strahl. An interesting promise given the reaction by Minister Duncan and the “Harper Government” to Attawapiskat’s third declaration of emergency on October 28, 2011. At first, this declaration received the same amount of attention from INAC as the previous ones – no attention at all. Chief Theresa Spence, MP Charlie Angus and others were in the news nearly every day trying to bring attention to the worsening crisis in Attawapiskat. Now, given all the past disasters with diesel, sewage back-up, evacuations and no school, the community saw some of its members living in sheds and tents, and some houses were so over-crowded that they had up to 20 people living in one house. Yet for three weeks INAC did not act. It was not until the Canadian Red Cross stepped in and provided emergency services to the community that the “Harper Government” was shamed into responding. However, the response was not what anyone expected. Instead of empathy or compassion, the “Harper Government” came out swinging and accused the community of “mismanagement” of their federal funding.  Unlike the political reaction to any other community in Canada that has suffered a crisis like flooding or fire, the Conservatives turned their backs and decided to blame the victim for the many crises in their community. The reaction from Attawapiskat, other First Nations and thousands of Canadians was outrage that the Conservatives would turn a situation of human suffering into a political battle complete with a smear campaign against the community’s leadership for daring to show the world how disgustingly Canada treats its First Nations. The media swooped in and covered all the drama as usual focusing on the simplistic headlines pitting tragedy against alleged corruption – until something happened and people started asking different questions. We had all heard the old right-wing denials of injustice and their racist focus on the alleged corruption of all First Nation leaders, their ‘exhorbitant” salaries being the cause of poverty on reserves and the solutions being – be more Canadian by paying taxes, owning your own fee simple land and mortgaging your house. Yet, few had ever asked the relevant questions of how did we get here, why is there no action being taken to redress human suffering and how do we move forward. The fact that the media quickly shifted to these important questions may well have shaped the response.

Dec.2, 2011 – APTN InFocus

Part 1

Part 2

 Dec.3, 2011 – CTV’s Question Period Dec.3, 2011 – Let’s Talk Native with John Kane

Dec.4, 2011 – CBC Radio’s The Current

Part 1 Part 2

Dec.8, 2011 – CTV’s Power Play with Don Martin

Dec.11, 2011 – CPAC’s Goldhawk Live

 Dec.15, 2011 – CTV’s Canada AM

I think however, that the biggest issue is the level to which the grass roots people in Attawapiskat said enough is enough and started to advocate on their own behalf is what made the difference. Our people have been suffering for so long and have been controlled and beaten down by ongoing colonial laws and policies that resistance has been difficult. How can one stand up for themselves if they have no home, food or water and the risk to standing up could mean retaliation from INAC or Harper?

The children of Attawapiskat, led by Shannen Koostachin showed the world that the well-being of our people are worth the risks. They showed the true spirit of our Indigenous peoples and made their ancestors proud when the stood up for their people. They have inspired a generation that has learned what colonization is and are working hard at decolonizing themselves and their communities and strengthening the grass roots resistance to federal control and forced poverty. So too did Chief Theresa Spence who risked everything to continually highlight the injustices in her community. In most political realms, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease – but in a “Harper Government” which is all about control and domination – the squeaky wheel is more likely to be removed and replaced or thrown out. Judging Harper’s actions in Attawapiskat, it is obvious that they were punished for their advocacy efforts and vilified in Parliament and the media until a wiser Canadian public wanted to know more. The sustained efforts of Chief Theresa Spence and her councillors, the leaders before them, their community members and youth, have been nothing short of heroic. They stood in the face of criticism, unfounded allegations of mismanagement and the most racist and heartless political response ever to a crisis in Canada and stood firm on justice for their community. Canada’s response to impose further colonial controls on the community through a third party manager at $1300 a day to be paid from the band’s overwhelmed budget is yet another attack on the community in an effort to subdue them. While Canada has been critiqued, so has the Assembly of First Nations for their lack of advocacy for the most impoverished communities in Canada. Where was Shawn Atleo when Chief Spence was declaring her THIRD state of emergency? Why was he not screaming from the steps of Parliament to raise awareness and demand action? Atleo’s political strategy of “playing nice with the Conservatives” has only brought woe upon those First Nations who are most in need. He has set the stage for non-resistance which does not bode well with most First Nations. But we all have hope and have been inspired by the efforts of Attawapiskat to refuse to give up – to refuse to believe that they are not entitled to justice and basic human rights. Strong grass roots youth like Shannen Koostachin and strong Indigenous women leaders like Chief Theresa Spence have shown the world that resistance is now at the heart of our identities as Indigenous peoples and that we – the grass roots – have the power to change our future. We do not have to wait for elected leaders to act on our behalf. True leaders step in when there is a void and take real steps to address it. Attawapiskat has done more to raise awareness about our issues than many leaders who are paid to do just that. But they took a risk in acting. There will always be risks associated with decolonizing and resisting federal control over our Nations. We could have our leaders discredited or removed, we could lose valuable funding or be publically vilified by Harper’s thugs. There are even risks associated with the inevitable change that comes with something other than the “status quo”. But these risks are worth taking on behalf of our communities who expect and deserve so much more than what they survive now – lack of housing, water, sewer, food, education, employment and for some, a lack of identity, culture, language, history, context and pride. This is not to say there are no good leaders – there are many and I have the privilege of working with some of them who also believe that things need to change. My main point is that the most vulnerable in our communities – Indigenous women and children – are also a source of strength and leadership for our people. Our grass roots Indigenous people know a better life is possible – one that honours the sacrifices of our ancestors and protects our culture, identity, land and resources for our future generations. Let Attawapiskat be an example of hope – one that proves that brave leaders, who are prepared to take risks can come from anyone, at anytime, under any conditions. Our people will rally around these kinds of leaders and collectively we have the power to change our futures and take back control over our Nations.


  1. There is hope indeed. Not only in what Chief Theresa Spence is doing, or Cindy Blackstock, or many others; but also in you. There is hope also in each of us coming together, putting our minds and resources and energies to a common cause.

    Even in the discussion of economic development and resource/energy development clever minds from among our people are coming together. In my LinkedIn group, we are discussing the formation of an informal think tank. Our pooled knowledge can help support and offer advice to our peoples.

  2. Thanks for the perspective I really appreciate it. I had no idea that Shannen's Dream originated from Attawapiskat. More power to you. More power to us.

  3. Justice John Phelan of the Federal Court made two conclusions in a ruling during the summer of 2012: First, that the appointment of a third-party manager was unreasonable and did not adequately respond to the challenges First Nations residents of Attawapiskat were facing. Second, he noted that this was the fault of bureaucrats, not elected officials like Harper or Duncan.

    This seems like a thoughtful, balanced ruling. It implies that federal bureaucrats at the Department of Indian Affairs were not looking at root problems that go beyond alleged mismanagment by Chief Spence. It also shows that attempts to tar Harper and the Conservatives with simplistic labels such as evil "villains", "bullies", and "bad guys" were unjustified and counter-productive.

    It's time to move forward in good faith with genuine consultation of Canada's First Nations peoples resulting in long-lasting, permanent solutions. Patience and action are both required.

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