Trudeau becomes first sitting PM to visit northern Ontario reserve

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has touched down in Pikangikum, a remote community in northwestern Ontario some 500 kilometres from Thunder Bay, in an effort to see what more the federal government can to do help the impoverished community.

Trudeau is the first by a sitting prime minister to Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets residents as he arrives at Eenchokay Birchstick School in Pikangikum, Ontario, Friday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

In what was the first visit by a sitting prime minister to a fly-in community in Ontario's north, Justin Trudeau asked young people on the impoverished First Nation of Pikangikum to have hope while pledging more federal supports.

Trudeau flew into Pikangikum, Ontario some 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, on Friday to meet with the community's leadership and see, first hand, the conditions on the ground.

The reserve is one of the country's largest — populated by 3,100 Ojibway-speaking peoples, many of whom are under the age of 30.

Trudeau's trip was also the first visit by a prime minister to a community in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory — a group of 49 First Nations in the northern reaches of the province with a total population of 49,000.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions from students at Eenchokay Birchstick School in Pikangikum, Ontario, Friday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Trudeau, who is in the midst of a cross-country town hall tour, also hosted a Q&A with school children at Eenchokay Birchstick School — a state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2016 after the old structure burned down.

He fielded questions about the sorry state of the community's housing stock, when the First Nations will be able to count on clean drinking water, and what the prime minister has learned so far from the troubled missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) inquiry.

A couple of students asked the prime minister when they can expect running water in their homes. Trudeau reiterated his pledge to end all long-term boil water advisories on reserve by March 2021, a commitment he made during the last election campaign.

"There are far too many communities across the country that don't have any drinking water at all, relying on bottled water ... that's unacceptable," he said.

When asked what he would to do end the cycle of addiction that plagues the community — with parents abandoning their children to go drinking, or with young people skipping school to abuse alcohol and sniff gas — Trudeau said improvements to the community's basic infrastructure are an important starting point.

It is understandable that people, when faced with poor and overcrowded housing, inadequate water supplies, and intermittent electricity, will feel down, he said.

"There are moments of real difficulty, and real pain ... and people will try to dull the pain ... but know that we are on this journey, we are focused on healing, together. The Canadian government has much to learn, and we're going to do it together," he said, adding that he wants the young people of Pikangikum to have hope despite a past scarred by the intergenerational traumas of the Indian residential school system.

"We believe strongly in your ability to succeed. You matter, we need each and every one of you."

Some 75 per cent of the community are under the age of 25.

About 900 students attend classes at the new school in Pikangikum First Nation, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. (Jody Porter/CBC)

New electric link

Earlier in the day Trudeau, accompanied by NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, met with the community's band council and pledged more federal support to improve the quality of life in a community that is only accessible by car in the winter.

To that end, the federal Indigenous-Crown Relations Minister, Carolyn Bennett, recently committed some $60 million to finally connect the community to Ontario's power grid. To this point, the community has relied on diesel generators for electricity, an expensive, unreliable and environmentally unfriendly source of power.

"We see a lot of challenging things in the news from time to time about difficulties faced by people in this community. But I think 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," Trudeau said at his meeting with the band council.

Dean Owen, the chief of Pikangikum First Nation, said housing is the biggest problem facing his community. The backlog of people waiting for homes has doubled since he became chief 13 years ago as the population of band members has nearly doubled from 1,800 in 2005 to 3,100 currently. 

An abandoned house is shown on the Pikangikum First Nation. Last summer, the federal government announced funding to connect the Pikangikum First Nation in northwestern Ontario to the province's power grid. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Owen says nine and 10 people often share one of the reserve's existing homes and are forced to sleep in shifts.

He pressed the prime minister to flow more funds to build homes, something the government has promised to address in a much-anticipated Indigenous housing strategy. (A national housing strategy was unveiled last fall.)

The prime minister briefly went ice fishing on Pikangikum Lake. Guided by an elder and surrounded by some kids and other adults, he pulled a long net out of a hole in the ice.

Inside the net were four fish. He grabbed one — a sizeable northern pike — and posed for photos holding the fish with two kids beside him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a Northern Pike after pulling up fishing nets with students and teachers from Eenchokay Birchstick School in Pikangikum. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

With files from the Canadian Press