TIMMINS, ONT. - NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel says she has never seen the kind of impoverished living conditions she witnessed on a visit to a northern Ontario First Nation community Tuesday.
Accompanied by Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, Turmel toured the makeshift sheds and tents that serve as houses and spoke with the people who live in them in remote Attawapiskat.
“It was important for me to see the conditions with my own eyes and meet the people of Attawapiskat for myself,” said Turmel.
She said one of the New Democrat's core values is to fight for adequate living conditions for all Canadians and they will doggedly pursue the issue in the House of Commons.
“We won't stop raising this in the House and asking questions until this is resolved,” said Turmel.
But getting answers is a different story.
After two months of raising the community's dire housing situation in the Commons, all Angus has managed to get out of the government is speculation the First Nation’s leadership may have mishandled federal government funding.
Angus said the Conservatives keep citing higher and higher numbers in relation to how much they've invested in the community.
But Angus and Turmel sat down with Chief Theresa Spence and learned from a federally appointed co-manager that the reserve only receives $500,000 in housing funds a year.
“That's the equivalent of two homes,” said Angus.
He said the government argues it sends up to $12 million a year to the First Nation, which should be sufficient.
However, Angus said 85% of that money is spent on education alone.
“That's like saying sorry Timmins, you can't have an infrastructure project because you spent all your money on teachers.”
Moreover, the books showed the reserve has just $1 million in annual capital funding to service a community of 1,500, Angus said.
“That's shot if even one sewer needs replacing,” he said.
All said, the First Nation receives federal funding on the order of $6,500 a year.
Turmel said that amount is “totally inadequate.”
“Why are the Conservatives working against this community rather than taking a more humane approach and trying to understand what it's actually like there.”
After dealing with community's immediate needs, Turmel said there needs to be long-term strategies to address the structural roots of the community's poverty.
She argued there needs to be more of an emphasis placed on education in order to empower Attawapiskat residents to craft their own solutions.
But like housing, on-reserve education suffers from chronic underfunding.
Elementary students receive $3,000 less in government funding than students anywhere else, and students in Attawapiskat are still waiting for a decent elementary school to be built.
“Children can't be dropping out of school when they're in Grade 4, Grade 5,” said Turmel.
“When they try to leave the reserves to get away from this poverty it's no better for them in the south because they don't have the skills to succeed.”
Turmel said representatives from the government need to see the reserve for themselves in order to understand just how urgent the situation is there.
The Red Cross is now on the ground and representatives from Emergency Measures Ontario are investigating the situation but still haven't committed to getting involved.