Bureaucrats, ministers of Indian affairs and even premiers and prime ministers have promised year after year to address the multiple, overlapping crises in the Cree Nation of Kashechewan, crises that are firmly rooted in past government decisions. But once again the people of Kashechewan find themselves in danger. They are being evacuated and split up among several Ontario towns, including Timmins, Kapuskasing, Thunder Bay and Cornwall. The roughly 2,500 community members have no idea how long they will be gone from their homes or even if they will have homes to which they can safely return when the flooding ends. That is a lot to ask of a community that didn’t choose to put itself on a flood plain.

In 1957, federal officials forced the community to relocate from islands near Fort Albany, on the southern shore of the Albany River, to a site on the northern shore, even though it was known to be flood prone. It is a remote community reachable only by plane, boat or ice roads in the winter. Therefore, evacuations cost millions of dollars in transportation, lodging, meals and the extensive clean-up and repair of houses after each flood. The cost of the 2014 emergency evacuation was estimated at $21 million. Given that the community has been through this 17 times now, the cost of a permanent relocation to higher ground — pegged at $500 million in 2005 — doesn’t seem so high. Had federal and provincial officials lived up to their commitments, Kashechewan would not be in this crisis, nor would its people have to live with the added trauma of fear, anxiety and uncertainty year after year.

In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin committed to relocating the community 30 kilometres upriver. But, like his promised Kelowna Accord to infuse $5 billion into First Nation programs and services like housing and water, the move was cancelled when Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected. His plan took the same assimilatory approach proposed by so many Indian agents before him: to move the band members 450 kilometres away from their community and assimilate them into the town of Timmins. This was of course rejected by the residents, who have ancestral ties to their traditional territories. They wanted to be relocated off the flood plain, but not away from their ancestral lands.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, together with Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne signed a trilateral agreement with Kashechewan in 2017 to explore a relocation to higher ground. But, as with so many Trudeau promises, nothing has happened to make the plan a reality since the grand announcement. In fact, no funds were allocated in the most recent federal budget for such a relocation, which can only mean nothing will happen before the next election. Given the massive cuts being made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, it is unlikely much if any assistance will come from Ontario.

The politicians who don’t see this experience as traumatic ought to try uprooting themselves for two months, with their spouses and children, and bunking in these hotels away from their normal lives.

The effects of relocations like these, which can last for months, can be traumatic for elders, for those with physical or mental illnesses, for those with mobility issues and especially for children, whose whole lives are disrupted in the middle of their school year. The community is fragmented. Children are denied the stability and security of their extended families and their community while getting further behind in school. Single mothers struggle to raise young children while cooped up in a hotel for weeks or months on end. Add to this the stress of not knowing whether their homes and possessions will be destroyed and when they can return home. The politicians who don’t see this experience as traumatic ought to try uprooting themselves for two months, with their spouses and children, and bunking in these hotels away from their normal lives. It is doubtful any political leader in Canada would stand for this if it was happening to their family.

People from the Kashechewan First Nation arrive on a Canadian Military transport in Stratford, ON, on April 28. 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Dave Chidley

Canada has not only created this annual flooding crisis by forcibly relocating the community to a flood plain; it has maintained the crisis by failing to address it. The crisis is made all the more acute by Canada’s purposeful, chronic underfunding of social programs and services for First Nations generally, but for remote First Nations specifically. In 2005, more than 800 Kashechewan residents had to be evacuated due to E. coli contamination of the water supply. Many of the houses are full of mould due to repeated flooding and trapped moisture. Pictures of children with severe skin rashes and other conditions appeared all over the news in 2016, and several had to be flown out of the community for urgent treatment. Many residents can’t afford basic cleaning supplies, let alone healthy food.

Instead of stepping up and addressing these issues, the federal government continued to underfund even basic services, leading to food insecurity and lack of access to critical mental health services. It should have been no surprise that in 2007, the community was in the news again because 21 youth had attempted suicide, one only nine years old. With overcrowded housing and no resources for the sports and other recreational activities that most Canadians take for granted, you have a perfect recipe for mental health issues, leading to depression and suicide.

The community’s leaders are doing their best to advocate for Kashechewan’s people, and other advocates like NDP MP Charlie Angus raise the alarm in the media; but sharks have started to circle the community. The Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs placed co-managers in Kashechewan to control its finances, but one of them, Joe Crupi, was charged with swindling more than $1.2 million (including $656,000 for himself) from the funding for the kids’ breakfast program. He pleaded guilty to fraud  in 2017 and was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud, but served only six months.

The First Nation has also had to bring suit against a Toronto architect, Ellis Kirkland, engineering consultants, lawyers, a financial company and several numbered companies to recover more than $11 million that was allegedly diverted from post-flood rebuilding. Crupi was alleged to have been part of that scheme as well. Crupi and his brother face an additional lawsuit from the federal government for allegedly misappropriating $1.4 million of Kashechewan’s health funding.

To say that there is an industry that has built up around the dispossession and suffering of First Nations would be a gross understatement. Given that the community was under co-management by the federal department, it is clear Canada had very little concern for the well-being of the community. For their part, both the federal and provincial governments of Canada owe a legal duty of care to Kashechewan. This fiduciary obligation is made higher by the benefits that have come to them from the treaties signed by the Cree and by the fact that the forced relocation of the community has caused all today’s problems. Canada cannot now claim it can’t relocate the community in an expeditious manner, when it had no problem doing so in 1957.

There is no excuse for any of this. No amount of reconciliation-speak can possibly undo the long-term harms inflicted on this community. This is not what the treaty relationship of mutual protection and mutual prosperity envisioned. If there is one piece of business that must be done before the House rises for the summer, it is to get the Kashechewan relocation plan started, and it must be based on the actual needs and interests of the people of the community and done at their direction, on their terms. Anything less is a crime against humanity.

Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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