‘We’re in a humanitarian crisis,’ Attawapiskat chief calls for more land to build adequate housing

By CBC News · Apr 10, 2023

Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Sylvia Koostachin-Metatawabin says the community, located on the James Bay coast, has no room to build urgently needed housing because its reserve lands are “landlocked.” 

Koostachin-Metatawabin said that while her community’s traditional territory is more than 45,000 hectares in size, the reserve lands are only around 129 hectares. They want to expand that to more than 3,000 hectares.

“We’re in a humanitarian crisis and the way the government has been approaching our communities, it’s not working,” she said.

“The system in place and the policies and procedures that are in place when you tack on these major things that need to happen, it’s killing our people.”

Inadequate housing creating other issues

“We have a water issue; we need a new water intake. And we can’t build anymore.”

Koostachin-Metatawabin said thus far, the federal and provincial governments have offered a “piecemeal approach” to address the situation — and it’s no longer working.

A state of emergency was declared in the community in 2011 and 2013 after several homes were contaminated with sewage.

Koostachin-Metatawabin said the lack of appropriate housing has contributed to other issues, including homelessness, a mental health crisis and opioid addiction.

She said so far the government response has been slow, “so far we got two igloos. We call them igloos because they’re … little shelters like tiny homes … and that’s there response.” 

A satellite image of Attawapiskat First Nation with the Attawapiskat River to the south and airport to the north.
Attawapiskat Chief says her community needs more land to grow. (Google Maps)

Mushkegowuk-James Bay MPP Guy Bourgouin, who represents Attawapiskat in the massive riding, argues that the province holds some responsibility to offer up land currently owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources, to the First Nation.

That’s because both Attawapiskat and the province are signatories to Treaty 9, said Bourguoin. The treaty, signed in 1905-06, covers a large portion of Ontario’s north.

“It’s ironic when you think of their traditional territory, which is huge, but they’re landlocked because of the reserve,” Bourgouin said.

He said one proposed option to expand the reserve land would be to move Attawapiskat’s airport. Another option, said Bourgouin, is to settle a road dispute with mining company De Beers, which operated the nearby Victor Mine. 

A man wearing a blue blazer speaking at a microphone.
Mushkegowuk-James Bay MPP Guy Bourgouin says the province has a role to play to help expand Attawapiskat’s boundaries so it can address its housing needs. (Erik White/CBC)

Settling the matter could open up some land the Ministry of Natural Resources owns, he added.

Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Kevin Holland said during question period on Monday, that the province invested an additional $6.7 million into the Indigenous supportive housing program earlier this year.

“Bringing the total annual investment to $30 million,” said Holland, who is parliamentary assistant to the minister of Indigenous Affairs.

Holland’s comments were in response to questions from Bourguoin about the government’s plan to address Attawapiskat’s housing crisis.

Indigenous Services Canada provides funding to First Nations for housing. CBC reached out for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

With files from Angela Gemmill and Markus Schwabe