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To paraphrase the immortal words of my late mother, who always said she was quoting Ogden Nash but in fact wasn’t (she had a gift for malapropism that extended to mal-attribution), “Spring is here, the grass is riz; I wonder where the people of Kashechewan is?”
Why they, of course, are on the move again, as indeed they are most springs, when the Albany River in northern Ontario floods.
It is beyond bearing that this is an annual trek, that everyone in this First Nation — about 2,500 beleaguered people — is flown out of the remote community on the south side of the river and moved to motels and hotels in towns such as Kapuskasing, at a reported cost to the public of between $15 and $20 million every time.
It’s as predictable a seasonal feature as the cherry blossoms coming out in Vancouver, a mid-April snow, Leaf hopes rising in Toronto.
And by most accounts, it’s been happening for about a decade, but since the collective memory is about 15 seconds, almost certainly longer.
Certainly, in 2006, when the federal government appointed a former Ontario cabinet minister, Alan Pope, as a special adviser and sent him to Kashechewan, Kash already had been evacuated three times in the previous 15 months — for flooding, sewage backup and water quality issues.
Pope was appointed by then-Conservative Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Affairs Minister (and later Alberta premier), the late Jim Prentice.
At the time, it was hailed as the first step to finding a lasting, long-term solution to the woes of Kashechewan.
Near as I can tell, all that’s changed in the intervening years since Pope wrote his report is INAC’s name; it became Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, and then, two years ago under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was halved into two separate departments.
Pope’s report is probably flawed for its frankness — not to mention that he recommended moving the people to the Timmins area, where he lives.
Among the shameful facts he found (and he is a lawyer):
Kashechewan received, back then, “between $18 and 22 million each year in public monies,” mostly from the feds via INAC, but also from the Ontario government, Health Canada and the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council.
“This is a significant amount of money for a community the size of Kashechewan,” he noted, mildly in the circumstances.
(That sum, according to the First Nation’s consolidated financial statements for the year ended March 31, 2018, sat at about $33 million from INAC and almost $10 million from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Affairs.)
Yet, Pope said, “the Kashechewan First Nation has routinely advised INAC that the budgeted funds are insufficient to meet the needs of the community… INAC has replied that (the allocation) is “done fairly and as best as can be done given finite financial resources.
“INAC sees the provision of community services and facilities as a responsibility of the First Nation whereas the First Nation sees the provision of community services and facilities as a responsibility of INAC in furtherance of the Crown’s fiduciary obligations to the First Nation.”
Neither was prepared nor had the means, Pope said, “to accommodate the other’s point of view.”
Kash also had a significant debt; INAC policies didn’t allow for money to be reallocated, and in fact INAC was holding back 15 per cent of its funding as a penalty.
“The resulting perpetration of inadequate services and facilities in Kashechewan lies at the heart of the current crisis,” he said.
He recommended INAC immediately stop holding back funds. “I also find that the debt situation for Kashechewan First Nation arises as a consequence of their attempts to provide adequate housing for the band members and that they should not be penalized for so doing.”
He found community services were “incomplete, inconsistent and inadequate.”
There was no integration or co-ordination of federal and provincial health programs. “Dental care is rarely available.” Domestic violence, a major issue, “remains unaddressed.” There was “virtually a total absence of pre-natal and post-natal care.” And “members of the Kashechewan First Nation are denied services if they have no OHIP or status Indian Card.
“In today’s world, this is totally unacceptable.”
And, as Pope wrote with barely restrained rage, “All of these matters have been known since a health care needs study in the early 1990s.”
Homes in Kash were substandard, or met few federal or provincial standards for building, fire, electrical. They were also poorly maintained by the occupants, but he found out why — there were no housing bylaws, no one responsible for enforcing standards, no direction on what to do with garbage.
Policing by the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service” was inadequate, and no effort was made to curb widespread “out-of-control conduct.”
The quality of education was measurably declining.
An elementary school had to be closed because it wasn’t safe. Those students moved into the high school, with the result that the older students had to go to school between 3 and 8 p.m. Attendance was immediately halved.
It was in that year, 2006, that the then chief presented a proposal to re-locate the community 30 kilometres west. It was suggested the proposal had been chosen. Pope found it had been chosen by the band council and presented as a fait accompli.
Pope had a team canvass every house in Kash, in both English and Cree.
“A significant majority,” he said, believed that it was in the best interests of their children and families to move away from the river and the traditional lands.
Pope recommended the move be to the outskirts of Timmins, with the proviso that the people retain the use and any revenue sharing possibilities of their traditional lands.
The new houses, he said, should be privately owned. A community centre and recreation facilities should be built. “The young people of Kashechewan will be the greatest beneficiaries of a new era of intellectual and occupational advancement and fulfillment.
“This was the determining factor for many band members in deciding to relocate.”
So, why are they still there, governments, and that’s governments of all stripes? Why are those beautiful kids not getting all the opportunity other kids get? It’s all enough to make your head explode.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019