Family stuck in condemned home warmed only by oven, space heaters, Sandy Bay First Nation woman says

Charlene Houle has just two space heaters to heat her two-storey home on Sandy Bay First Nation. But when both are on, sometimes the power to her entire home shuts off, she said.

17 people live in Charlene Houle's house; 60% of the First Nation's homes are in need of repairs, chief says

Charlene Houle shows one of the windows on her home where a space allows cold wind and ice to blow in. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Charlene Houle has just two space heaters to heat her two-storey home on Sandy Bay First Nation.

But when both are on, sometimes the power to her entire home shuts off, she said.

She received a letter last year saying her home was uninhabitable and condemned. She's been asking her First Nation, located 130 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on the shores of Lake Manitoba, for a new home for 18 years.

But she's still on a waiting list.

"It hurts me," she told CBC News on Wednesday, when the daytime high struggled to get above –30 C in southern Manitoba.

Charlene Houle is currently heating her entire home with two space heaters. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Seventeen people live in Houle's two-bedroom home. Eight of them are kids. Many in the home sleep in sweaters, and the youngest sleep on a bed in the laundry room at night.

"[They] just have to cuddle in that one room," she said. "It's warmer in there."

Her home has a furnace, but she said it isn't working and blows cold air.

Houle said her home was in bad shape when she moved into it nearly 20 years ago. There are holes and cracks in the walls, the house is sinking into the unfinished basement, and there are rats, she said.

A gap between the door frame and the bottom of the door allows cold air to rush into the kitchen. On windy winter nights, she said, snow will even blow in.

Houle says she's been waiting 18 years for a new home. Wiring and pipes are exposed through holes in the walls. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Houle said she's appealed to Sandy Bay's chief and council for years, but the situation hasn't gotten any better.

"I'm doing this for my kids. It doesn't bother me, but my kids are more important."

Many homes need repair 

Lance Roulette, who has been chief of Sandy Bay for four years, told CBC News that he's aware of Houle's situation.

A repair person was sent to look at her furnace last year, he said, but there's only so much the First Nation can do.

"I know that everybody is trying to keep warm," said Roulette, adding that residents have been asked to do things like place blankets around doors and cover windows in plastic to try to keep the wind out.

Houle said the youngest kids sleep in the laundry room, the warmest room in her house right now. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Onus is often placed on the band to do something about the housing, he said.

"A lot of the times we don't have the resources, but we do provide what we can. We have some homes that are older than I am that are in terrific shape. And we have some newer homes that are in terrible shape."

The chief said about 60 per cent of the band's roughly 630 homes are in need of some kind of repairs. With the limited resources his First Nation is given for housing, he said, waiting more than a dozen years for a new home isn't uncommon.

"I think every First Nation needs more funding.… [It] all boils down to basically funding, but more so how the individual maintains their unit," Roulette said.

"Clearly we have issues surrounding maintenance, and we have to educate ourselves and become more proactive in maintaining our homes as well."

"On Indigenous housing, we know there is significant need and that we need to do more, and do it better," said a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada in a written statement to CBC on Wednesday.

He said the federal government has "made significant investments" in Indigenous and northern housing since 2016, including more than $1.9 million invested in renovations and additions for Sandy Bay homes.

"We will continue to work in full partnership with the First Nation to address any housing concerns and have earmarked $20,000 for each First Nation in Manitoba to work with a tribal housing advisor and develop community-based strategic housing plans," the spokesperson said.

Roulette said the First Nation did more than half a million dollars in repairs and rehabilitation to homes last year, and built five duplexes, along with one fourplex. 

He said he expects at least another nine housing units to be built in 2019. 

Houle still on list 

Houle said she's talked to others living in similar conditions, who are also waiting for repairs or new homes.

"They always say I'm on the list," she said. "It's hard. Very hard."

Houle shows where snow has blown into her home through a gap under the door. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

For now, she's heating her home with space heaters and turning on the stove and oven during the day, making the temperature on the ground floor more comfortable. She's holding out hope she'll eventually get a new home to live in, but would like to see leadership step up.

"They can't even find me a place to stay, at least for the winter," she said.

"I'm stuck here."


Riley Laychuk


Riley Laychuk is a news anchor and reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. He was previously based at CBC's bureau in Brandon for six years, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: