Some weeks I find politicking especially hard to stomach. The recent response to the situation in Attawapiskat makes it one of those weeks.
When the community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency, they weren’t asking for a cyclical public debate about who is to blame. They weren’t asking to be a tool to shame or prop up certain political parties. And they certainly weren’t asking to be painfully reminded of Canada’s colonial attitudes in the arrival of a third-party manager.
They were asking for survival. For water, blankets, shelter.
Yet, as Keith Beardsley has commented in the National Post, the Attawapiskat crisis has become political fodder. A cry for help has sparked another political blame game, featuring allegations of misspent tax dollars and demands for paperwork.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the temperature goes down and the black mould creeps up.
Of course, as a reserve and therefore a federal government responsibility, Attawapiskat is inevitably a political issue. And to the extent that political posturing will enable this First Nations community and hopefully others to move forward, it is positive. But when saving face becomes more important to politicians than responding to a humanitarian crisis in their backyard, I get nauseous.
Don’t get me wrong, band leaders need to be held accountable. And yes, we need to know where previous investments in the community have gone (although this breakdown makes it pretty clear that the purported $90 million wasn’t exactly a goldmine). But if my boat is sinking, the first thing I need is a life raft, not someone to interview me about how the boat was made and whether I contributed to its demise.
We need to get our priorities straight.
Our first response must be compassion. Compassion helps first and asks questions later. No matter who did what and no matter which party brought it up, there are people in Attawapiskat who are victims of the crisis and they need help. A failure to act is a failure to uphold public justice. It’s a failure to love our neighbour.
Having said that, public justice also requires a nation-wide public dialogue about the very foundation of Aboriginal and federal government relations. About why Canada is not a confederation of many founding peoples. About the still-in-force Indian Act whose rightful place is in a museum for us to stare at dumbfounded. About the urgent need for education, clean water, housing, and a host of other life necessities for Aboriginal peoples in Canada. All of these things need to be discussed and acted upon.
Some of these conversations are happening, particularly on the importance of educational reform in Aboriginal communities. It’s something Attawapiskat’s own youth have courageously fought for and which the Senate has recently highlighted. So there is hope and we should talk about that too.
But let’s get the kids out of the cold first.
Melodi Alopaeus is CPJ’s policy intern.
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