Shacks, slop pails on Wasagamack First Nation

People on a remote Manitoba First Nation are living in shacks and using slop pails and outhouses, as they cope with poverty, poor housing and a lack of running water.

People on a remote Manitoba First Nation are living in shacks and using slop pails and outhouses as they cope with poverty, poor housing and a lack of running water.

The Wasagamack First Nation, located about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg, faces housing and infrastructure problems similar to the crisis on the Attiwapiskat First Nation in Ontario, which has attracted national attention.

More than 200 of the 262 houses on Wasagamack do not have running water or sewage systems, according to band officials. Most of the homes are overcrowded, with many housing several families.

Gary and Darlene McDougall, along with their five young children, live in a shack not much larger than a double-car garage.

The shack, where the McDougalls have been living since the couple married 10 years ago, is heated by a wood stove during the day and a small space heater at night. The door of the shack does not close properly, so they place a blanket over it to keep the draft out.

"This is where I sleep — me and my husband. My baby sleeps over there, and four of my kids sleep here," Darlene McDougall told CBC News during a tour of their home on Friday.  "But we've been sleeping with them; it's been pretty cold during the night."

Head lice, health issues

The shack's sleeping and living area is so small there is no play space for the children, who range in age from 11 months to 10 years old, so they watch television to entertain themselves.

Darlene McDougall said she is always having to battle her children's head lice and other health issues.

Holding up her son Shade, who will turn one on Dec. 23, Darlene McDougall noted the baby's skin rashes and raspy breathing.

"His skin gets really dry from the wood stove. Can you hear the way he breathes, though? It's from the wood stove," she said. "Last year, he got medevaced out three times because of his breathing problems."

When asked where the toilet was, Gary McDougall replied, "There's a pail behind here."

Not far from the pail, Darlene McDougall cooked breakfast — wieners — for her children using an electric frying pan. The adults and children ate the breakfast on their beds.

At another Wasagamack home, Lila Harper washed eight people's lunch dishes using just two litres of water, as the house does not have any running water or sewage. There is a slop pail in their washroom.

Harper's mother, 79, has lived in the same house since 1984, along with her children and grandchildren. But the house has mould on the ceilings and walls, and some of the windows have been boarded up with cardboard and tape.

"I tried to ask chief and council to give us a new house, and they said will fix it and [they] never fix it. We're just waiting," Harper said.

Can't get materials sent up

Both the Harpers and the McDougalls said they have been asking their chief and council for new houses. The McDougalls said they have been told the First Nation cannot get enough building material set up during the short winter ice road season.

At this time of year, the Wasagamack First Nation — one of four communities in the Island Lake Tribal Council — can be accessed only by helicopter, since the ice roads have not formed yet.

The helicopter flight from a neighbouring First Nation takes just five minutes, but the round trip costs nearly $800, meaning not a lot of people or supplies are moving in or out of Wasagamack right now.

"This is a reality," said Alfred Harper, Wasagamack's manager of capital projects.

Harper said politicians who are discussing First Nation housing right now should sleep in Wasagamack for a night.

"They should visit the northern communities and visit the living conditions. That's the only way they'll know, is to experience it first-hand rather than just hearing about it," he said.

In an email to CBC News sent Monday, a spokesperson for the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Department said the Wasagamack First Nation received a total of $10.1 million in federal funding over the last 10 years for housing and infrastructure.

$150K to replace a house

But aboriginal leaders have said it costs about $150,000 to replace an inadequate house. In Manitoba, more than 400 new houses would have to be built every year to keep up with the demand, according to native leaders in the province.

"First Nations housing from 10 years ago hasn't improved; nothing has been done," said Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an organization that represents the province's northern aboriginal communities.

Harper said there is a simple solution to the poverty and poor infrastructure on First Nations: Give them revenue from area resource industries such as logging and mining.

"None of that funding comes back to communities where it can improve housing," he said. "When government says it doesn't have money, we see money leaving our territories every day."

At the McDougall home, Darlene said her 10-year-old son Saturn recently told her, "I want my own house for Christmas."

"I tried to turn that into a joke with him: 'I guess you have to wait until you get married and have your own kids. Then you'll have your own house,'" she said.