By Ossie Michelin
APTN National News
While the housing crisis in Attawapiskat has the country’s full attention, it was an event on March 5, 2005, that pushed the community toward its current dire state of affairs.
Attawapiskat resident Jackie Hookimaw still remembers that moment.
“My father, he noticed at three in the morning…there was a big awful smell and there was something leaking into the basement,” said Hookimaw.
A sewage backup flooded the dirt basement floors of several homes in the community, including Hookimaw’s parent’s home.
The sewage backup happened around the same time that De Beers, the international diamond company currently operating a mine 90 kilometres from the community, disposed their sewage sludge into the community’s lift station, said Hookimaw.
Documents obtained by APTN National News back Hookimaw’s claim.
Ontario First Nations Technical Services was called in to assess the situation and its engineers concluded that the De Beers discharge may have been behind the sewage backup that ended up in the basements of homes in Attawapiskat.
“What is currently known is that De Beers discharged a load of sewage into the pumping station. This might have precipitated the overloading of the pumping station, thereby causing sewage backup,” said the engineering report.
The engineers also noted that the federal government was informed of the problems, but Ottawa did little to try to fix things, according to a follow-up report by different engineers with First Nations Engineering Services.
“The general condition of the pump control panel is very poor. There is a key switch to control manual selection of the pumps. It is very difficult to operate and may fail at anytime,” the report noted.
The report found that the system was very fragile and at high risk of failing.
“There is no overload protection. This is an extremely risky way to run a pump,” the report said.
De Beers was told about the reports by APTN National News, but a company spokesman said they knew nothing about it.
“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with the story you’re talking about,” said Tom Ormsby, spokesperson for De Beers.
In 2009, the warnings from engineers proved prophetic. There was another sewage backup which displaced more people, forcing many to be evacuated.
Aboriginal Affairs refused to pay for the evacuation and the band was forced to foot the bill.
Seven years after the first sewage backup and the Hookimaw family home remains empty.
While the house was abandoned, the pipes froze and burst, spraying water throughout the interior.
Eventually toxic mould took over and made the house completely uninhabitable.
The family received an insurance cheque for $25,000.
Throughout the current crisis, the federal government, from the prime minister down, have repeatedly blamed the band council for Attawapiskat’s current state of affairs.
APTN National News tried repeatedly to get a comment from Aboriginal Affairs on this story, but no one returned the calls.