Parvati Magazine has previously discussed Canada’s Arctic and some of the difficulties and concerns for those who live there. But you don’t have to go above the Arctic Circle to see big problems for Canada’s indigenous populations. On the shores of Ontario’s James Bay, communities have suffered in third world conditions.

When you look at Ontario on a map, you see that place names on the map thin out drastically once you get north of Thunder Bay, Sault St. Marie, Sudbury and North Bay. These cities are considered “northern” – even though, geographically, the vast majority of the province extends north of them. The further north you go, communities become isolated spots on the map with no roads connecting them – only airports. They are what is known as “fly-in” communities. (Roads that are passable year-round are expensive to build over permafrost.) People living in these communities depend entirely on expensive flights to import goods we take for granted in the south, such as a bottle of pop, or fresh produce. Anyone suffering a serious medical emergency is airlifted to a hospital sometimes hundreds of kilometers away from their home and family.

Near the shore of James Bay are two communities you may have heard of in the news in recent years: Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. They are connected by an “ice road” that only exists in winter. Their names make the news, generally, when the media reports on a serious problem.

Kashechewan experienced a water quality crisis in 2005 that saw 800 community members evacuated due to high E. coli levels. This came four years after an Ontario Clean Water Agency survey raised concerns regarding serious problems with the community’s water systems, and two years after the same agency described Kashechewan as a “Walkerton in waiting”. When the news broke, the federal government spent $250,000 flying bottled water in to Kashechewan, and also flew in a portable filtration system. Once the water was declared free of E. coli, attention shifted away from Kashechewan and other communities like it. But Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has stated that over 100 aboriginal communities in Canada are currently living under permanent, long-term boil-water advisories.

Since 2000, primary school students in Attawapiskat have attended school in portable classrooms after the J. R. Nakogee school was closed citing concerns about contamination from a 1979 diesel spill. Yes, you read that right. The school remained operational for 21 years after the spill, before it was finally closed for health concerns. And for 11 years since then, students have been in portable classrooms. The federal government promised a new school in 2000. That hasn’t happened yet. Parents in the community are now starting to hold their children back from attending the school, or are seeking education in other communities. The situation is deteriorating since quality education cannot be offered in the present facilities.

But recently, we’ve learned that it’s not just that the children in Attawapiskat don’t have a proper school to go to. They don’t have a proper home to come back to either. Many houses in the community are condemned and the cost of building a new one is over $250,000. People are literally living in tents and cobbled-together shelters – often without running water or electricity – and keeping warm by burning firewood at a cost of $150-200 a week. In one case, children, the elderly, and the ill were discovered to be sleeping in rooms just a few feet away from a 2009 raw sewage spill that had not been fully cleaned up.

The Red Cross has declared an emergency in the community and is managing donations to support urgent, short-term needs.

In a bitter irony, a DeBeer diamond mine is situated on Attawapiskat traditional lands not far west of the community. Royalties from the mine, however, do not go to Attawapiskat.

The problems in these communities are long-term, complex and deep-rooted. They will not go away when the media spotlight fades. Suicide, depression, substance abuse and sexual abuse exist at far higher averages in these communities than they do in the rest of Canada. Money alone cannot solve this kind of suffering. But at the least we can bear witness, pay attention, and not remain indifferent or in denial towards long-term tragedies that may be closer to home than we like to think.

by Parvati Magazine staff