One of the most shameful and overlooked details of the housing crisis in Attawapiskat is that its people are living in desperate Third World conditions while an obscenely rich company is impacting their community by mining nearby for diamonds.
The media is missing a big story here. Sure, the crisis earned coverage in the national media when the northern Ontario reserve declared a state of emergency, but that coverage has petered out. The national correspondents have gone south again. One of the few recent reports, albeit a good one, was by a freelancer in The Globe and Mail.
In a classic case of the one percent exploiting the 99 percent, De Beers, the international mining colossus, paid the Attawapiskat band $1 million in signing bonuses and $2 million a year to open its Victor mine just 90 kilometres from the besieged community. By doing so, De Beers acknowledged that its operations would negatively impact the community.
In 2009, the Victor Mine’s first full year of production, it produced hundreds of thousands of carats of high quality diamonds, creating revenues of $243 million. It expects the mine to yield $3 billion worth of diamonds in 12 years.
Chief Theresa Spence, who is under fire for her handling of the reserve's finances, has made much of the bitter irony of De Beers and Attawapiskat being in bed together. “While [Ottawa, the provincial government and De Beers Canada] reap the riches, my people shiver in cold shacks … Precious diamonds from my land grace the fingers and necklaces of Hollywood celebrities."
Her tale of exploitation is not the full truth. In addition to the $90 million Attawapiskat has received from the federal government over the past five years, it has also received millions from De Beers in construction and other contracts. Yet Attawapiskat has an unemployment rate of 60 percent. Inhabitants lack access to clean drinking water. They lack adequate shelter. There is strong evidence of financial mismanagement, yet there is also a sense that Ottawa is playing the blame game instead of rushing better water and shelter to the people of Attawapiskat .
It's a familiar story on First Nations reserves, and also familiar is the national media's short attention span for stories of aboriginal suffering and neglect. Thank God for APTN. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is punching way above its weight in its coverage of Attawapiskat, and in the last couple of days it has put the spotlight squarely back on De Beers and its diamonds.
This story by Ossie Michelin of APTN National News says the housing crisis in the reserve can be traced back to a sewage backup in 2005 that flooded the dirt basements of several homes in the community.
The sewage backup happened around the same time that De Beers disposed sewage sludge directly into the community’s water pumping station. The network quoted from a report by engineers from Ontario First Nations Technical Services, who were called in to assess the situation, concluding that the De Beers discharge could have caused the sewage backup (what's not clear from the APTN report is what the sewage was from. De Beers didn't start construction of its mine until early 2006).
The engineers also noted that the federal government was informed that the pumping station was very fragile and at high risk of failing, but Ottawa did little to try to fix things.
In 2009, the warnings proved prophetic. There was another sewage backup which displaced more people, forcing many to be evacuated. Aboriginal Affairs refused to pay for the evacuation and the band was forced to foot the bill.
Throughout the current crisis, the federal government, from the prime minister down, have repeatedly blamed the band council for Attawapiskat’s current state of affairs. This view is shared by media commentators like the National Post's John Ivison, who writes: "When the project was announced, the government made available $10 million in skills training, an amount De Beers augmented with a further $1.8 million in facilities and equipment. One person familiar with the training program said the numbers who enrolled were much lower than had been anticipated. Around 500 people from the reserve were hired during the construction phase but only 100 people still work there today."
As part of the deal with De Beers, Ivison claims, $325 million in contracts have been funnelled through solely owned or joint-owned companies based on Attawapiskat since construction started in 2006 (his figure appears to be an exaggeration; the company puts the value of the contracts at $167 million). "However," Ivison writes, "despite all that business ... the band’s accounts suggest it has made just $99,867 in profits since its inception."
He concludes: "This is not the picture of colonial exploitation that many people have been quick to paint."
That may or may not be true, but it certainly seems to require the national media to look a lot closer at the deal between De Beers and the reserve. The impact-benefit agreement, which ironically earned the company Mining Magazine's “Mine of the Year Award” in 2009, took more than three years to negotiate and covers everything from De Beers' right to override Attawapiskat land claims to what's served at Victor Mine's cafeteria.
The company has pledged around $30 million over the 12-year life of the mine. The money is paid into a trust, to which the band has access. However, The Globe and Mail's excellent report by freelancer Genesee Keevil showed that band members are ignorant of many key provisions of the bulky, legalistic document. Band members even missed a deadline to pick an aboriginal name for the mine.
Many questions need to be answered. Where was Ottawa with expertise to help Attawapiskat negotiate, understand and follow through on benefits associated with the deal? Who certified that the deal was fair? Given the desperate living conditions on the reserve, does the responsibility of De Beers stop with letting its First Nations workforce walk away, or should it make a bigger effort to adequately train and provide support?
David McLaren writes in SunMedia papers: "It’s an old colonizer’s trick. First, hunt out Indigenous peoples’ territories and then, with a dollop of human feeling, offer to take the empty lands off their hands in return for food .... Then, allow reserves to fall into such disrepair and despair that people will flee them for the cities and assimilation."
Sadly, he concludes: " We not only rammed the Aboriginal canoe, but boarded it, plundered it and, in trying to steer it through their own waters, have all but wrecked it."
And the national media quietly moves on to a sexier story.
Think about these numbers
The city of Toronto has run a budget deficit for years, just like Attawapiskat. This thought-provoking article by lawyer Lorraine Land asks whether anyone would seriously consider putting Toronto under outside management.
Her numbers show that three levels of government spend $24,000 a year for each Torontonian.
Attawapiskat, on the other hand, is only funded by one level of government — federal. It received $17.6 million this fiscal year, for all of the programs and infrastructure for its 1,550 residents. That works out to about $11,355 per capita in Attawapiskat.