Hous­ing short­age worse than ever, chief of On­tario re­serve says

PM prom­ises help for re­serve where house fire killed 9

Edmonton Journal - - CULTURE & CURRENTS - Steve Lam­bert

PIKANGIKUM, ONT. • Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau is promis­ing a re­mote north­west­ern On­tario re­serve help with a hous­ing short­age that the chief says is worse than ever.

Trudeau said dur­ing a visit to Pikangikum First Na­tion that Ot­tawa is se­ri­ous about work­ing with the com­mu­nity to im­prove its hous­ing.

He said more and bet­ter hous­ing in In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties is one of his gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­i­ties.

Ear­lier in the day, Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen said the back­log of homes need­ing to be built on the re­serve is al­most twice as much as it was when he be­came chief.

Some new houses and a new school have been built, but the chief added that con­struc­tion on the re­serve is ham­pered by a lack of elec­tri­cal ca­pac­ity.

The com­mu­nity called on Trudeau to come visit af­ter a fa­tal fire in 2016 that killed six adults and three chil­dren un­der five in one home.

Trudeau told stu­dents dur­ing a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion at the school that the gov­ern­ment wants to make in­vest­ments that are go­ing to make a real dif­fer­ence.

“We know that un­less you can start with safe, se­cure, ad­e­quate hous­ing, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to suc­ceed in any­thing else in life,” he said Fri­day. “It is dif­fi­cult to go to school, dif­fi­cult to work, dif­fi­cult to raise a fam­ily right.

“It needs to start with hous­ing.”

Owen said there were 1,800 band mem­bers in 2005 when he be­came chief of the re­serve, about 500 kilo­me­tres north­west of Thun­der Bay, Ont.

“We had a short­fall, back­log of homes back then close to 300 homes. Thir­teen years later, we’re at 3,100 peo­ple on re­serve and the back­log has since al­most dou­bled,” Owen said in an in­ter­view Fri­day be­fore Trudeau’s ar­rival.

Owen said an ex­tended fam­ily of nine or 10 peo­ple often shares one of the re­serve’s ex­ist­ing homes and peo­ple are forced to sleep in shifts.

He said con­struc­tion on the re­serve is ham­pered by a lack of elec­tri­cal ca­pac­ity.

“The prob­lem ac­tu­ally has to do with the size of the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion that we have


run­ning diesel gen­er­a­tors,” he said. “We maxed that out pretty much two years ago.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment last sum­mer an­nounced up to $60 mil­lion in fund­ing to con­nect Pikangikum to On­tario’s power grid. Owen said that should help.

“That will def­i­nitely al­low for more hous­ing, more in­fra­struc­ture. We’re pretty much in dire need for liv­ing like any­one else in Canada or On­tario — wa­ter and sewer in every home.”

Pikangikum faces chal­lenges on top of sub­stan­dard hous­ing. A boil-wa­ter ad­vi­sory has lasted more than a decade on parts of the re­serve. The com­mu­nity has a wa­ter treat­ment plant, but about 80 per cent of homes are not con­nected and rely on truck de­liv­ery or haul­ing wa­ter by hand.

Trudeau said his gov­ern­ment has elim­i­nated boil­wa­ter ad­vi­sories on about two dozen re­serves and is still work­ing to erase them en­tirely by March 2021.

Sui­cide also re­mains preva­lent.

An­swer­ing a ques­tion about young peo­ple killing them­selves, Trudeau said the so­lu­tion is twofold.

“We need to make sure that you’re get­ting the sup­port from peo­ple who will help you through that dif­fi­cult mo­ment. But we also need to make sure that it’s not just a Band-Aid, that we are giv­ing you op­por­tu­ni­ties to be hope­ful about your fu­ture, about your ca­pac­ity to build a bet­ter life, have a great fam­ily.”

The prime min­is­ter started his visit Fri­day with a meet­ing at the band of­fice. He told coun­cil mem­bers, Grand Chief Alvin Fid­dler of the Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion and oth­ers that he was in the com­mu­nity pri­mar­ily to lis­ten to con­cerns and see what the gov­ern­ment can do to help.

Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion rep­re­sents about 50 First Na­tions in north­ern On­tario.

“We see a lot of chal­leng­ing things in the news from time to time about dif­fi­cul­ties faced by peo­ple in this com­mu­nity,” Trudeau said. “But ... one of the things I’ve been ex­cited about ... is that there is a lot of work be­ing done and a lot of good sto­ries as well that we are work­ing to build.”


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