ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. – A federal MP says a fire that forced about 70 residents from improvised housing in the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario could have easily turned into a disaster.
Charlie Angus, the New Democrat MP for the area, says it’s lucky no one was hurt or killed in the blaze that broke out in a set of inter-connected construction trailers used as a makeshift housing complex.
The evacuees were flown nearly 400 kilometres south to Kapuskasing by the Ontario government on Saturday, arriving in the late afternoon and evening, the government posted on its website.
Angus says he spoke to Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and band councillors on Saturday morning and was told the cause of the fire is believed to be candles used for lighting after storms knocked out electricity.
He says the complex was badly damaged by smoke but not completely gutted by the fire.
“Fortunately nobody was hurt or killed because it would have been a real disaster if this happened when people were sleeping,” said Angus, who has been an outspoken advocate for the community.
“That’s always been our fear in those trailers – a night fire.”
Angus said the De Beers construction trailers have been used as stopgap housing since the community’s sewage infrastructure collapsed four years ago.
“Unfortunately that short-term fix has become permanent,” he said.
“Cells in the provincial jails are bigger than where families are being put up.”
The band council declared an emergency after the fire broke out this week.
Angus said he’s been told the best-case scenario is that replacement housing could be set up within a month and a half.
In 2011, Attawapiskat became a flashpoint for relations between the Harper government and First Nations after a housing crisis triggered a state of emergency.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused the band of mismanaging finances and Spence staged a six-week hunger protest over living conditions on reserves and treaty issues, sparking nationwide demonstrations.
Angus said Attapiskat is doing its best to overcome its troubled infrastructure but that more must be done by the federal and Ontario governments.
“Some people seem to think Attawapiskat is this big welfare trap. But there are so many things standing in the way of getting housing built.”
“Nobody in Attawapiskat is expecting a quick turnaround time but there’s a real desire for people to be able to put money down on houses, to be able to start paying rent, to get better places. We just don’t have the housing stock to do it,” he added.
– By Will Campbell in Toronto