Amelia Skunk froze her feet again this winter when the winds howled through the holes in the walls of her home. It happened last year too.
The 74-year-old lives in an old chicken barn in Savant Lake, Ontario, about 400 km northwest of Thunder Bay where there are no homeless shelters or nursing homes.
"At the beginning, I wanted to walk away and not care like everybody else," Darlene Necan said. "But we gotta look out for each other. We gotta look out for our elders."
Necan is the ring-leader of a small group of people who decided Skunk needed a new home. With little money of their own, they headed into the bush in November to cut logs. When the shell was nearly complete in the spring, they held up placards and collected money on the side of the highway to pay for nails and shingles.
Some people 'a lot poorer than me'
On a sunny May day, Necan showed off the new log cabin Skunk will soon call home. Skunk’s 54-year-old son, Tony, helped with the building project and will live here with his mother.
The Skunks are Ojibway and Amelia doesn’t speak English, but Tony expressed his appreciation for the help.
"I got a new house, I’m so proud, because that old house is where they keep the chickens," he said.
Necan said the building project has been a struggle, but with move-in day on the horizon, it all seems worth it.
"A lot of people asked us, ‘why are you guys doing that for them, they’re nothing but drunks?’" Necan said.
"I said ‘that’s not the idea, we need to help those who are less fortunate’," she added. "Like I, myself, am only on welfare, I live on $599 a month. It’s hard living like that. But I just put away my stuff and realized some people are a lot poorer than me. That’s how I looked at it — and a lot of the helpers too."
Andrew Belmore is one of those helpers. The 28-year-old’s building know-how and his youthful energy was integral to the project.
"It feels real good to do this," he said, surveying the inside of the new cabin. "It means a lot to me too. We just gotta work together. If we can do this, we can build a lot of stuff."
Necan now has plans to do just that. She said the housing crisis in First Nations across Canada made her realize other solutions will be needed. She said at least 10 more people here need new homes and there are plenty of trees in the bush.
"We gotta do something," she said. "We can’t just sit and wait for Indian Affairs to do this by their rules. We cannot do that anymore. We have to stand up on our own feet."
Savant Lake is an old railway town. CN pulled most of its staff out years ago — but the First Nations people who have always lived in the area, remain. The Ojibways of Saugeen First Nation reserve is just down the road, but Necan said many people want to live here at the town site.
"All across every reserve they have housing issues," Necan said. "That’s why we took it upon ourselves, you know, we gotta do this and we’re going to continue on."