Attawapiskat crisis offers a teaching moment

No doubt by now you’ve seen the state of Attawapiskat.

Images of desperate housing conditions, families living in overcrowded tents and shacks with no sewage system, no potable water, no heat or insulation, all have been ubiquitous in media since an extreme housing shortage caused the remote First Nations community to declare a state of emergency.

While the situation is so dire the Canadian Red Cross announced it is sending aid to the Cree community of roughly 2,000, and media and government officials – namely Charlie Angus (MP, Timmins-James Bay) – have been drawing attention to the state of Attawapiskat, it’s almost impossible for a resident of southwestern Ontario to understand the issues at hand, say two graduate students at The University of Western Ontario.

Dawn Burleigh, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education who taught in Attawapiskat from 2007-10, says two things continually blind the general population to First Nation issues in Canada – a state of privilege and a lack of education, even at the post-secondary level.



“Those here that are aware of (Attawapiskat), they ask what it’s like living there, working there. People have no idea. From such a privileged position, they’re entirely unaware,” she says.

“A lot of the issues that are coming up right now in terms of housing and education are not issues that just arose overnight. (Attawapiskat) is a very silenced community, a very silenced and marginalized voice that’s often not at the forefront of what Canadians, or even people here at Western, are aware of.”

Burleigh and Sarah Burm, an MEd student at the Faculty of Education who also taught in Attawapiskat, say even though they lived and worked in the reserve community, they experienced it from a distance and cannot adequately describe conditions the Attawapiskat people have been enduring for years.



“In (Attawapiskat), I had to learn the hard way of how much I took for granted housing, food and access to many things. It made me angry that I didn’t know more about this. It was a disappointment,” Burm says. “It’s because we’re in this position of privilege and have so many opportunities that we fail to see the lack of opportunities that First Nations people have.”

Burleigh agrees.

“My initial reaction (upon arrival) was ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Ontario, in Canada.’ But as I was there longer, I started to question my own understanding of the situation and how I came to understand it,” Burleigh adds.

Having studied geography during her undergraduate years at Western, Burleigh says she graduated from her program only marginally aware of Aboriginal issues.

“I think that’s common across all faculties. First Nations, Métis and Inuit issues are not at the forefront of the education here. There are pockets of work happening, but it all happens on the side,” she says.

Though the crisis in Attawapiskat is generating immediate awareness and action, both Burm and Burleigh want to see more done not only at the level of government, but at the university level as well.

“These are short-term discussions and short-term solutions. As much awareness as can be raised about deplorable conditions that shock people in the South, policy and systemic issues require more long-term work,” Burleigh says. “What people need to be constantly reminded of is that the people living in northern reserves, and reserves across our country, are there because of treaties and those treaties are two-part agreements that we have an obligation to uphold.”

This is precisely why Burm and Burleigh are doing graduate work in the Faculty of Education.

“I certainly believe education can mobilize change in the long term. Hopefully, the students I have taught and students others have taught will have the capacity to be effective agents of change in their own community,” Burleigh says.

As for academic institutions across Canada, Western included, Aboriginal issues boil down to one matter – obligation.

“It is the responsibility and duty of educators at this institution to engage students with (Aboriginal) issues. They’re not an add-on issue. Some of them can be interdisciplinary and can be used as underlying issues to teach a multitude of skills and critical-thinking,” Burleigh explains.

And there are no excuses for not engaging students, Burm adds. “A lot of the time the response is ‘I don’t have the time, knowledge or the resources.’ What needs to be stressed is there are resources available and there are individuals who are very knowledgeable on the issues and perspectives and they’re there to help and encourage educators to reach out. It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Despite Attawapiskat’s desperate living conditions, Burleigh is optimistic change is coming.

“This is a real time of hope for the community because of what’s been accomplished through the support of MP Charlie Angus. His push in government has given some hope to communities and it’s given me, as an academic, some hope that we can be aware of these issues and that awareness can affect change,” she says.

“Now is a time to be looking forward. The (Attawapiskat) community has highlighted some of the other disparities across Canada that require attention. The more people are talking about this, the more things will move forward.”