By Ruby Truax, photos courtesy of David Franks
One of the first things David Franks says he was told when he arrived in Attawapiskat was not to drink the tap water, not to brush his teeth with it, and to keep his showers short. “Try not to take hot showers that create steam,” he was told, “because you can breathe in the carcinogens.”
If you’re not familiar with Attawapiskat, you may be surprised to learn that this community is right here in Ontario. And their drinking water has been contaminated for more than ten years.
The Attawapiskat First Nation has been in the news for about 30 years now, with repeated evacuations and sewer back-ups due to flooding; with states of emergency due to a lack of potable drinking water, a lack of decent housing and overcrowding; and, most recently, due to an epidemic of suicide attempts among young people.
Like many of us, Franks wondered why, in 30 years, we haven’t been able to fix these problems. Why wasn’t the military brought in, for example, with their teams of civil engineers, surveyors, geologists, and work crews to remedy the housing and water issues?
So in 2016, Franks decided to go up there himself and spend a month speaking with the people to find out what they want, what they need, and how we can help. And when he got back home to Huntsville, he described his experiences and what he’s learned in his self-published book 30 Days in Attawapiskat.
This is an overview of what he says he learned from residents of the reserve.
During that first trip in 2016, Franks quickly discovered the prohibitive price of food in the North. For example, a case of 24 bottles of water, which costs $2.99 here in Muskoka, cost $42.00 in Attawapiskat. One wrinkly red pepper cost $4.37. Meat is too expensive for most people in the community, so they hunt for the meat they need, mostly snow geese, Canada geese and ducks. Most people eat the less expensive junk food, which has led to obesity and a rate of diabetes five times higher than the national average. Many of Franks’ meals in Attawapiskat consisted of peanut butter on crackers and an apple.
Franks found that most of the buildings in Attawapiskat, both homes and commercial buildings, are portables, like those schools use when they need extra space. But many of these homes are now being improved by a company called First Nations Energy Solutions, which takes out old batt insulation in attics and walls, blows in mineral insulation and installs Styrofoam insulation under the wood siding around the walls. The owner of this company hires and trains Indigenous youth to do the work, thereby both helping the community and training the youth in jobs with long-term employment potential. Franks feels that this is an important part of the solution for Attawapiskat.
“Throwing money at the problems doesn’t work,” writes Franks. “Telling (them) what to do doesn’t work. Only by listening then spending our time and sharing our resources and knowledge” can we assist them.
As he talked with the residents of Attawapiskat over the 30 days of that first visit, Franks learned that there is some insensitivity by our government toward Indigenous people. For example, the Emergency Medical Assistance Team (EMAT) who came to the community to help with the youth suicide crisis wore red shirts. It never crossed anyone’s mind that in the days of the residential school system, RCMP officers, dressed in red uniforms, would come to Indigenous homes to take the children away from their families. These children were kept in residential schools for years where they were beaten for speaking their own language or practicing their own culture. These RCMP abductions were obviously still in the people’s collective memory, because these “Red Shirts” (as they were derisively called) caused tension and anxiety on the reserve. That tension palpably eased when the EMAT left Attawapiskat. Franks wondered how everyone in the mental health field could have missed something like that.
A lot of people were hurt in residential schools, but they don’t like to talk about it. One of Franks’ new friends shared that his father had been in a residential school for twelve years, and said that while he couldn’t change the past, he tried to take the good lessons he’d learned there, such as farming and cutting wood, and move forward. For many people, exposing the abuses of their past brings shame to them and their communities. Many refused a monetary settlement from the Canadian government because money is not the real issue. Our government’s apology was very important to them, Franks was told, because the people’s spirit had been injured, and can only be fixed if the ones who injured it can admit their wrongdoing.
The EMAT illustrated another issue between our government and the reserves. The hospital administrator Franks met said she felt that the $2-million in aid promised to help alleviate the suicide state of emergency would be spread so thin as to be ineffective, with much of it going to the EMAT workers. She told Franks that they even hired two security guards for the hospital to keep the workers safe. Franks had walked the streets of Attawapiskat for a month and had felt safe. As a diabetes mentor, he’d even made house calls and had never felt threatened—anxious and uncomfortable, but not threatened. “There was definitely some stereotyping, racial profiling and fear mongering going on,” writes Franks.
Another outcome of the residential school system is the leniency parents show their children, Franks was told by a local police officer. “Most of the parents had strict upbringing in the residential school system. They don’t want that for their kids, so they let the youth do what they want,” he told Franks. “The parents need to provide more direction, and take more responsibility for their children.”
The same Attawapiskat police officer also told Franks that many suicide calls were the same nine or 10 kids every time, and that they’d run into the hospital, say they were overdosing, and when the police arrived they would run away. “These kids aren’t really trying to commit suicide,” the officer said. “They’re looking to outrun the cops so they can boast about it to their friends.”
One of the residents Franks spoke to said that “There needs to be more for the kids to do, more housing, and more parental involvement.”
Interestingly, when he asked another resident about the need for a year-round road to this remote fly-in reserve, it wasn’t on her list. She felt that it would create too much pollution with the salt, car exhaust and oil leaks, and lead to possible accidents involving fuel tankers. She also told Franks that there was once a potentially deadly contamination in Attawapiskat when a diesel tank ruptured under the new hospital. After many investigations and hearings, she claimed that the problem was “solved” by just pouring liquid clay over the site. It’s no wonder residents of Attawapiskat are concerned about pollution.
At one point in his book, Franks wrote, “I began to understand how these people felt: hopeless and forgotten, promises made but never kept; no way to escape; abused and disillusioned.” But he has come up with a plan.
Franks is currently raising money to build a series of mid-sized community greenhouses in Attawapiskat. It would be a way to relieve several problems plaguing the reserve, including high food prices and water quality, and would provide education, training, and the preservation of Indigenous knowledge and medicines.
Greenhouse gardening would be taught in high school, sharing the knowledge of how to grow plants and their nutritional value.
Rain and snow melt capture are part of the greenhouse roof design. This water would first be used to turn turbines and produce electricity. Then it would be purified and stored as drinking water and water for the plants.
Solar panels would be installed on each greenhouse roof to produce more electricity. A composting program would turn plant and animal waste into fertile soil. There’s wind almost every day in Attawapiskat, so small roof-top wind turbines attached to each greenhouse would harness that wind to produce electricity.
The goal of all this is to teach the people of the Attawapiskat First Nation how to build greenhouses to feed themselves. These skills could then be taken to other reserves and taught to their community members. A portion of the food produced could be sold to the reserve grocery store, eliminating shipping costs and lowering food prices while offering a wider selection of fresh, healthy choices.
Franks returned to Attawapiskat earlier this year to meet with a newly elected Chief and Council. He had hoped to have a portion of land on the reserve set aside for the greenhouses. While the former Chief had been receptive to the idea, the new Chief said that Attawapiskat’s biggest issue right now is housing, so he would not allow the greenhouses to be built on the reserve. He did say, however, that they could be built on nearby Potato Island.
Unfortunately, Potato Island is not accessible year round and has no electricity. The lack of electricity is not a problem because the greenhouse design would generate its own, but Franks was disappointed with the location. He plans to return to Attawapiskat later this year to give a presentation to the Chief and Council outlining the need for the greenhouses to be built in a location with year-round access for community members.
Sol Mamakwa, Health Advisor to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an organization representing 49 First Nation communities within northern Ontario, said to Franks, “The dire straits of the status quo is construed as normal and acceptable in the North, but unknown in the rest of Canada.”
With his book 30 Days in Attawapiskat and with his community greenhouse plan, David Franks is trying to change that. Half the profits from the sale of this book will go toward the Attawapiskat community greenhouse project. If you’d like to make a donation to the project, visit the GoFundMe page here.
30 Days in Attawapiskat is available as an e-book or paperback on Amazon and Chapters Indigo online.
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