'Inadequate' homes put lives in danger on Manitoba First Nations, leaders say

When a tornado or severe wind event strikes, many Canadians head for the basement. But what if you don't have a basement to head to and neither do your neighbours? It's a reality and a growing concern among First Nations leaders in Manitoba.

MKO chief says First Nations leaders, residents should be concerned about homes they live in

A home in Long Plain First Nation was lifted clear from its foundation in a tornado in July. The homeowners weren't home at the time. (CBC)

When a tornado or severe wind event strikes, many Canadians head for the basement. But what if you don't have a basement to head to and neither do your neighbours? It's a reality and a growing concern among First Nation leaders as repairs continue in two Manitoba First Nations hit by tornadoes. 

Last week, one home was destroyed and six others damaged after a tornado struck Waywayseecappo First Nation, Man., northwest of Brandon. Two dozen people were left homeless.

In July, 57 homes were severely damaged on Long Plain First Nation, near Portage la Prairie, while up to 150 sustained some sort of damage after a tornado ripped through that community. Hundreds of people were forced from their homes as a result. Some could be out for up to six months.

Those were just two of Manitoba's 10 to 14 confirmed tornadoes so far this summer. In both cases, homes didn't stand a chance. Some lost roofs while others were lifted clear from their foundations and tossed metres away, leaving belongings scattered and people shaken in their wake. 

Concern mounting

"It's heartbreaking to see homes like that," said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson. "Very relieved that no one got seriously injured"

North Wilson said First Nations leaders and residents should be concerned about the homes they live in and demand a better housing solution from the federal government.

"Homes on reserves are inadequate and they are putting people's lives in danger," she said. 

According to the Assembly of First Nations, housing units on First Nations are usually built on "slab on grade" foundations due to cost constraints, meaning they don't have a basement or a crawl space, the safest places to be in case of a tornado. 

Basements are a feature Waywayseecappo chief Murray Clearsky says he would like homes in his community to have. Few houses in his community have them right now.

"With the amount of money that we get to build a house, we really can't afford to build basements," he said. "We only get so much capital dollars per year."

Dollars stretched thin 

Before the Aug. 8 tornado, 22 roofs were needing repairs from other severe storms this season. Those repairs are now on hold while damage from this week is assessed. 

"We're just going to patch them," he said. "That's all we can afford."

Clearsky said his community of 2,800 people gets around $635,000 a year in capital funding from the federal government. That money is allocated to things like education, water and sewer, infrastructure and administration, among other things. 

In the end, very little money is left for home maintenance, let alone home construction, according to Clearsky. Waywayseecappo maintains about 465 homes. 

They know damn well we don't have the money to repair them.- Murray Clearky, Chief of Waywayseecappo First Nation 

This week, Clearsky took matters into his own hands. He took out a bank loan in order to start fixing homes damaged this week instead of waiting on federal dollars. 

"The government says keep your receipts, they know damn well we don't have the money to repair them," Clearsky said. "So I went to the bank the other day [in order] to repair these ones."

AFN said First Nations can apply for additional funding for home construction, but there is no guarantee it will be approved.

Billions in repairs needed 

North Wilson said First Nations across Canada need about $40 billion in new homes to alleviate backlog problems such as poor construction, overcrowding and other concerns.

"It's also very maddening to know that our people are subjected to live under these conditions," she said. "Right now potentially we have hundreds of homes across Manitoba and across this country ... that have the potential to seriously injure or even cause death to our members because of the type of homes and the instability.

"A lot of them are fire hazards in the first place that won't stand up to tornadoes or other extreme weather like that."

Both North Wilson and Clearsky said the federal government needs to step up and work with First Nations to come up with more funding for housing. 

North Wilson added she won't stop fighting until a new funding model becomes a reality.

"We'll continue to hope for the best and fight for the best because our people deserve good quality homes like any Canadian in this country," she said. 

CBC News requested comment on this story last Wednesday from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The agency has yet to respond.


  • A previous version of this story stated that MKO Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson said First Nations in Manitoba alone need about $40 billion in new homes to help solve overcrowding and construction issues. In fact, North Wilson says that figure represents the amount of funding needed to address housing issues on First Nations across Canada, not just in Manitoba alone.
    Aug 14, 2016 9:17 AM CT