Father Rodrigue Vézina is shown with a woman and her child whom he baptized.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CATHOLIC MISSIONS IN CANADA

Father Rodrigue Vézina is shown with a woman and her child whom he baptized.

December 19, 2011
VANESSA SANTILLI
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

It's a good thing the federal government wants to know where millions of dollars given to the Attawapiskat community has gone, says the pastor on the northern Ontario reserve.

"All of us want to check where all of our tax money is going," said Oblate Father Rodrigue Vézina, pastor of Attawapiskat's St. Francis Xavier Parish, which receives support from Catholic Missions In Canada.

The small isolated town near the western shore of James Bay received international attention when Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency in October as temperatures began to drop.

For at least the past two years, many residents have lived in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity or indoor plumbing.

Since 2007, the government has given more than $90 million to the struggling community.

The community was placed under third party management at the end of November, taking control of local finances from the elected council.

The local people, chiefs and councillors don't agree with the decision, Vézina said in a telephone interview. The people are opposed to having "somebody else over the administration of their business, of their local government."

It's important to note DeBeers opened a diamond mine in the community a few years ago. "But now the money has been pushed into a trust fund the band cannot touch," said Vézina.

"The different companies come up North to make money, they get the resources there and they're making big money out of it. And those people living in the North should have an income, a profit from that."

According to the Canadian Press, the provincial government gets a 13-per-cent cut of revenues from the DeBeers' mine, while Attawapiskat gets one per cent.

Vézina said more than 100 people are on a waiting list for housing. But the band can't afford to buy supplies, build new houses or repair existing homes.

"Every time we turn on the radio or the TV, this is always on the news," he said. That should help more people become conscious of what's happening on reserves across Canada.

Attawapiskat is just one of the many reserves in Canada experiencing turmoil, he said.

"On TV last night, they were showing a house where there were holes in the ceiling, holes in the floor with small children living there and no beds, just a mattress on the floor," Vézina said.

Some houses have as many as 14 people living in them, he said.

"That's very crowded. . . . That's kind of a difficult situation (for students) to study at home," he said. "As a pastor, I think something good will come out of this. I see the poor already being helped."

The Canadian Red Cross has donated clothing, blankets, sleeping bags and heaters to those people in need, he said. "They are in good spirits."