Attawapiskat: From Crisis to Reconciliation

by Steve van de Hoef and Mike Hogeterp

The housing crisis in Attawapiskat has grabbed news headlines across Canada for the better part of a month. Attawapiskat is a remote Cree community of roughly 2000 people on the Western shores of James Bay in Northern Ontario. Housing and infrastructure problems are chronic in Attawapiskat to the extent that some families are living in what can only be described as third world conditions. In October, community leaders responded to these housing conditions by declaring a state of emergency; an emergency that got little public notice until the MP for the area released a video showing the disturbing realities of housing conditions in Attawapiskat.

Over the last month, we have had multiple conversations about Attawapiskat – with each other, with friends, colleagues and members of our congregations, and online. These conversations would not have happened if the crisis in Attawapiskat had not received such media attention. Without trying to sound crass, the crisis in Attawapiskat has presented all of us with a teachable moment.

In our conversations, one question always comes up: “What can we do?” The desire to do something practical to alleviate suffering is an understandable response to a crisis. So it’s appropriate that Attawapiskat’s housing crisis has provoked an emergency response. We give thanks for the Red Cross, TrueNorthAid and others who are responding to immediate needs. And yet, an emergency response is not enough. There is another essential response for us as church people: learning history.

Learning history may seem an insufficient response to the crisis in Attawapiskat – after all learning doesn’t build houses. Please, hear us out….

There is a long and complex background story to the cycle of social and economic problems like those in Attawapiskat. Careful, thoughtful reflections and news reports have given a window into the long-term, systemic issues that underlie this crisis. For example, Lorraine Land and blogger Âpihtawikosisân looked deeper at some of the myths about housing funding for Attawapiskat partly through comparisons to non-Aboriginal municipalities. Kenneth Deer reflected on the double standards at play in popular reactions to the crisis in Attawapiskat, and pointed to the often frustrating relationship between First Nations and the federal government shaped by Canada’s colonial past. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, explains that the legacy of residential schools has created barriers to constructive dialogue between First Nations and the federal government. John Ibbitson and John Ivison show how the crisis in Attawapiskat highlights the need for equitable education funding for First Nation communities.

Responses to the crisis – in personal conversations, in social media, and in the news media – exposed some of the basic stereotypes that non-Aboriginal Canadians have of Aboriginal peoples. In this respect, the national news media (to say nothing of their comment sections) has been an effective mirror – a mirror that has sometimes been painful to look into.

For many years now, Indigenous people have told churches that there is a need for a reconciled relationship between our peoples. Residential schools and assimilation policies denied the dignity of Indigenous cultures and separated generations of children from their families and communities. Yes, residential schools are in the past but their effects persist today.

It is time we confronted the realities of present and past injustices, and of broken relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. It is time that we learn our shared history. Without this, it will not be possible to lay the foundations of new relationships based on justice, partnership and mutual respect. Without a new relationship, ‘crises’ like the one in Attawapiskat will continue to pop up.

Georges Erasmus, a respected Aboriginal leader and co-Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, has said that “where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” Learning our shared history, which includes the ugliness of residential schools and policies of forced assimilation, is a necessary step in responding to the crisis in Attawapiskat.

We have spent the past four weeks in the hope and expectation of Advent. We eagerly expect God’s gift of Jesus, who was born to make all things new. So yes, let’s generously support those who are responding to the immediate needs in Attawapiskat. But Advent hope doesn’t end there. Recognizing this, and working for healing, reconciliation and a new relationship with Indigenous people is the stuff of real advent hope and love.

Some practical suggestions for you and your congregation:

  • Take some time to reflect on your own reactions to the crisis in Attawapiskat and the news reports. What is of God? What is not? Is there more than the surface of spin and stereotypes? How is God calling you to act as a minister of reconciliation?
  • Learn about Indian Residential Schools and the impact they had and continue to have on the lives of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Read more about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it seeks to bear witness to this truth, and facilitate healing and reconciliation.
  • Read about The Blanket Exercise and how it can help you learn the history of relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Consider hosting a Blanket Exercise at your church (email us for more details).
  • Learn about the Indian Act and how it governs the daily lives of First Nations. Share what you have learned with one or two friends, or with your small group.
  • Learn about the upcoming Summit on January 24, 2012 between First Nation leaders and the Government of Canada. Call or send an email to your MP expressing your support for this meeting and your desire for it to form the basis of a new relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada.
  • Learn about Shannen’s Dream for “safe and comfy schools.” Shannen was a young girl from Attawapiskat who did not have a proper school to attend, who brought her concerns to the federal government before she died tragically in a car accident.
  • Learn more about equity in education and why many Indigenous leaders are saying that education is critical for the future of First Nations. The Centre for Public Dialogue has made Indigenous education a focus of its policy research and advocacy, so it can be a good place to start.

Steve van de Hoef and Mike Hogeterp are staff at the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue