Ottawa offers Attawapiskat evacuation plan

The federal government is offering to evacuate families living in tents and shacks in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat until adequate housing can be provided for them.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan delivered the offer Wednesday in a letter to Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

A third-party manager appointed by Ottawa is prepared to purchase 15 modular homes to help deal with the community's housing crisis, the letter said. But the homes would not be delivered until winter roads open in the area.

In the meantime, Duncan wrote that a local sportsplex or healing lodge could also be modified to accommodate families who are living in substandard housing.

But Interim NDP Leader Nycole Turmel says the military should be sent to the community to help deal with the situation.

In a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, she said that people in Attawapiskat have asked her to seek the army's help, and that a lack of warm and hygienic housing is dire, given the imminent arrival of winter.

"There is no time to waste," she wrote.

Moving supplies into the community will require an extraordinary level of co-ordination, Turmel said.

"Given the extreme weather conditions and the fact that the winter road will not be ready for nearly two months, the community is seeking co-ordinated logistical help."

Turmel pointed out the military has been used elsewhere in times of crisis because of its specialized transport equipment and logistical expertise.

When asked whether the government would accept the NDP's request for military intervention, Duncan replied, "unlike the NDP we are focused on the residents of Attawapiskat and not on scoring political points.

"We've been working on a plan around the clock … to ensure residents, especially children, have warm, dry places to sleep," he said during question period. "We have a plan, we're still committed to working with the band council and we urge them to be part of the solution going forward."

Canada Command told CBC News that it has not received any requests to help in Attawapiskat, according to a spokesman at its public affairs office. Canada Command is responsible for Canadian Forces routine operations in Canada.

When asked about the NDP military request, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said that it's important that First Nations drive the solutions going forward, rather than a top-down unilateral decision from Ottawa.

"I would stand in full support of any First Nations, any First Nations leader or government, that is reaching out for major emergency and crisis response," he told host Carole MacNeil on CBC's News Now.

"And if it includes calling in a response such as the army, in a way that is respectful of the jurisdiction of the leadership, and if that's what is needed by her people, that's what duly appointed elected leaders are responsible for calling for."

The remote James Bay First Nations community declared a state of emergency in October over substandard housing conditions, with some of its 1,800 residents living in unheated tents and portable trailers.

Harper has said his government has given the community around $90 million over the past five years, though critics noted most of that money went to infrastructure and services unrelated to housing.

The government has since put Attawapiskat under third-party management to oversee spending, and ordered an independent audit of the community's finances, but band leaders have condemned Ottawa's handling of the crisis.

Third-party manager Jacques Marion, from the accounting and consulting firm BDO Canada, arrived in Attawapiskat on Monday but was asked by the band leadership to leave.

Chief Spence had told CBC News, "I don't want them in my community … doesn't work for our community … we should focus on the crisis, not on other things."

Stan Louttit, a regional chief who presides over the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents Attawapiskat and six other First Nations, said Tuesday a number of his counterparts were prepared to engage in civil disobedience over the government's handling of the situation.

"There's people who are ready to stand up and be counted ... to stand up and do civil disobedience so that we are heard," Louttit told Evan Solomon on CBC-TV's Power & Politics.

During an annual meeting of First Nations chiefs in Ottawa on Tuesday, the leaders passed a resolution declaring their support for "the leadership and citizens of Attawapiskat First Nation in their efforts to address the emergency needs of their people, including ensuring adequate housing and health supports."

The resolution also requested that the United Nations bring in a "special rapporteur" to find out whether Ottawa is meeting its legal obligations to aboriginal people.