Manitoba chiefs in Ottawa to push for better housing

Some Manitoba chiefs are in Ottawa this week, as the Assembly of First Nations is urging the federal government to address a housing crisis on reserves across Canada.
This family home on the Wasagamack First Nation in northern Manitoba is an aging shack not much larger than a double-car garage. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Some Manitoba chiefs are in Ottawa this week, as the Assembly of First Nations is urging the federal government to address a housing crisis on reserves across Canada.

Chiefs from the province are hoping their national leaders can convince the federal government to help provide more decent housing to First Nations people.

On Manitoba reserves like the Wasagamack First Nation and the Sandy Bay First Nation, many members live in shacks or homes that are falling apart, and some do not have access to running water or sewage systems.

"There's mould. The drywall is torn down. The floor is broken in because there's a lot of traffic," said Chief Jeffrey Naopokesik of Shamattawa, Man., in describing one of the worst homes on his reserve.

Naopokesik said he was so desperate for new homes on his First Nation, he turned to a private lender — a move that he said costs a lot more money that his band does not have.

"Sometimes it keep me up in the wee hours of the night," he said.

Severe shortage of homes

Pukatawagan, Man., Chief Arlen Dumas, who is in Ottawa this week, said his community has more structurally sound homes than other reserves, but there is a severe shortage of homes that he said is creating overcrowded conditions.

"We have 30 people living in a five-bedroom home. We have 10 to 15 people living in a three-bedroom trailer," he said.

Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Arnold Ouskan, who is also in Ottawa this week, said First Nation leaders are not just asking the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Department for more money.

"We know what the problem is: the department has to be more flexible with their funding," he said, adding that First Nations cannot move around the federal funds they receive.

The issue of substandard First Nations housing has surfaced in recent weeks thanks to a crisis in Attawapiskat, Ont., where some people in the community of about 1,800 live in unheated tents, condemned housing and portable trailers.

Chiefs support Attawapiskat

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence declared an emergency in October as winter approached.

But this week, Spence criticized Ottawa's handling of the crisis, after federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan ordered an independent audit of Attawapiskat's finances and has appointed a third-party manager to oversee spending.

When the outside manager, Jacques Marion, arrived in Attawapiskat on Monday, he was promptly asked to leave by the band, which said his presence was unwanted.

Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an organization that represents northern Manitoba First Nations, said his group supports the decision by leaders in Attawapiskat to kick out the third-party manager.

If other First Nation leaders do not help Attawapiskat stand up to the federal government, they could be targeted next, Harper said.

"We have to stand with her, regardless of what people might think, what people might say," he said.