This story was produced with guidance from Danny Kresnyak of Journalists for Human Rights, as part of JHR’s Northern Ontario Initiative. Part of this story was published by Wawatay News and has been republished with permission. Richard Spence is the grand-nephew of Chief Teresa Spence, and he recently began working at the band office in Attawapiskat, Ont.

Up north, winter is more than a season. It’s a full-time occupation.

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is kick a leg out from under the blanket to see if the electric furnace in my house is still on. If it isn’t, the temperature drop is immediately evident and I have to act fast.

Next I check on my pregnant girlfriend and our three children. Our house has major draft issues, so once I know my family is secure, we bunch blankets, bedsheets and extra clothing into the window frames and other problem areas to seal the cold air out.

Richard Spence

Richard Spence stands in the burnt-out emergency shelter on the Attawapiskat First Nation. (Danny Kresnyak)

Then I need to track down wood, propane or any other temporary fuel source not requiring a plug-in. Usually, if the power is out, it means we have recently endured a storm and I will have to step outdoors and bear witness to its wrath.

I put on two pairs of heavy socks and thermal underwear with my jeans over top. Then I step into my front porch, where I layer T-shirts under hooded sweatshirts, zip my jacket and put my hood up.

During this process, I feel something like Chris Hadfield in the pre-spacewalk decompression chamber. Like the astronaut departing into frigid space, I can never be totally sure what waits outside the door.

A recent string of disruptions after an earlier outage left houses, hospitals and schools in the James Bay territory in darkness — in some cases, for days.

During this period, the emergency shelter on Attawapiskat’s eastern edge was evacuated after candles being used as the sole available heat source ignited curtains in one of the rooms.

Now the people are gone, but the trailers remain. And in the following story, I will examine how it got this way.

Roots of Attawapiskat's housing crisis

Monique Sutherland’s first day as Attawapiskat’s housing manager was in June 2008. She says she received no special training, the files were scattered and she had no staff.

Not long after she started, the community was forced to declare a housing crisis after a catastrophic sewage backup left many homeless.

Sutherland has persevered in the post longer than her predecessors and has established a more efficient record-keeping system. She oversees a staff of tradespeople, but they still cannot meet demands.

Denise Okimaw

Denise Okimaw was a resident of the emergency shelter trailer complex on the eastern edge of Attawapiskat First Nation. (Danny Kresnyak)

She says the 2009 sewer backup was the tipping point, but the roots of the housing crisis are deeper than that, and at current rates it will be years until needs are met.

“We keep on it, but it could 10 or 15 years," she says.

Attawapiskat had to evacuate again in 2013 after spring floods damaged many homes, including the temporary residences of nurses and teachers working in the community.

An anonymous source at the hospital says the lack of housing has contributed to a critical shortage of permanent nurses and emergency relief staff who come to the community on short-term contracts. Staff have been forced to sleep on the ward, in beds meant to be occupied by the patients they care for.

Limited space

Band members struck by the shortage have options, but wait lists are long and space is limited.

“A lot of people end up having to go to relatives' houses, which are already overcrowded,” Sutherland says.

'Unfortunately, temporary has a way of becoming permanent.'— Wayne Turner,  Attawapiskat executive director

“If they can’t, they go to the homeless shelter, but it’s full so they have to put up tent frames.”

Sutherland also has advice for off-reserve band members with thoughts about returning home: “Stay where you are. You’re welcome to visit, but as it sits, we have no houses available."

Before the fire last month, Denise Okimaw was a resident of the emergency shelter trailer complex on the eastern edge of Attawapiskat First Nation. Okimaw says she paid almost $500 a month to share a single room with her teenage son and had lived there for the last four years.

Before the room in the shelter, Okimaw spent nights in Attawapiskat community hotels, the healing lodge outside of town, and emergency housing in Cochrane, Ont.

Her former home near the river is a four-bedroom white house that now has a padlock on the front door. The house has not been renovated since the sewage backup in 2009. Now she uses it for storage while she stays at the homeless shelter, wondering what’s being done to fix it.

Solutions and roadblocks

Sutherland says the housing budget is depleted because some band members in new houses have refused to pay their rent, and many old houses are in need of extensive and expensive repairs.

“Some of the houses are about to collapse. They need to be fixed but we don’t have money to buy supplies,” she says.

Paul Kataquapit

Paul Kataquapit is building a house in town and spending his own money to have building materials freighted to Attawapiskat, because he is tired of waiting for action from the band and the government. (Danny Kresnyak)

A new program called RRAP (Rehabilitation Repairs Application Program) has provided some support for houses in need of renovation, but the funding is scheduled to expire at the end of October.

Sutherland says Attawapiskat’s funding application to build new houses through the CMHC was denied when Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) refused to guarantee a loan due to accounting inadequacies and a budget deficit.

“We used to build 10, maybe 15 houses some years. Now we aren’t able to meet the needs," she says.

Wayne Turner, Attawapiskat’s executive director, says housing the displaced is a major drain on band funds.

“We receive no additional funds for transitional housing," he says. "The money all comes from the band’s discretionary fund. Unfortunately, temporary has a way of becoming permanent.”

He lives on the second floor of the Tony Fireman Healing Lodge, outside of town. The former addictions treatment centre has been appropriated as emergency housing and the main level is full of elders, children and families with no other place to stay.

''We can’t tax people, there are many unemployed. If we want to do any project, we have to beg the federal government, and that dependency doesn’t solve the problem.''-— Chief Teresa Spence

Turner says the First Nation's chief and council have developed a multiyear housing strategy, funded by $2.2 million for new home building provided by the federal government.

“The band has already started building. These are the new houses on the west side of town,” he says. “The houses are assessed a market value rent and the First Nation backs the mortgage.”

Turner explains that people who live in these houses can eventually own the building if they maintain it, but provisions of the Indian Act prevent use the homes to establish equity.

This is one of the biggest issues facing residents, he says.

“What other part of the country can you not leverage what you own into advantages for yourself?”

The chief's house

Chief Teresa Spence lives in a yellow bungalow that was once a police station, down a back alley near the hospital. Her front door opens to a chain-link and black canvas fence at the perimeter of a contamination remediation site.

On her walk to work, she takes a hard-packed grit road frequented by heavy-duty equipment carrying contaminated soil to containment tanks on the outskirts of the First Nation.

She then takes another left at the only sidewalk in Attawapiskat, four one-metre square slabs of concrete connecting the steel grate steps of the mural-emblazoned band office to the wooden entry of a graffiti-adorned decommissioned post office.  

Spence says present legislation excludes First Nations people from participation in the national economy.

“I’ve heard from a few people their mortgage was denied because they live on reserve. It shouldn’t be that way," she says.

'If you have a good job and have shown yourself responsible, you should be able to have your dream house built.”

Spence says the housing budget is a major drain on the band budget, and the band lacks revenue for new projects.

“We can’t tax people, there are many unemployed. If we want to do any project, we have to beg the federal government, and that dependency doesn’t solve the problem," she says.

Paul Kataquapit is part of a four-person carpentry crew building a house next to his brother’s diner in a central section of town. He spent his own money to have building materials freighted to Attawapiskat on the barge because he was “tired of waiting for the band to approve the lot and Indian Affairs [AANDC] to pay for the building.”

The frame has gone up quickly, but Kataquapit says he worries about whether the supplies he needs for the roof will make it before the snow sets in.

While he waits to hear from government, his niece and her family had to live in a crowded house, and it was clear to him, he says, that “no one is going to do this for us. We needed to take action ourselves.”