New Brunswick

What now? Elsipogtog's housing crisis deepens with apartment fire

Community officials are scrambling to find homes for at least eight people after an early morning fire destroyed an apartment building in Elsipogtog First Nation.

'It’s a crisis and now we have another 8 homes that just burned down,' says former chief

No one was injured in a fire on Elsipogtog First Nation overnight Thursday, but the occupants of eight apartments need new homes. (Photo: Robert Joseph)

Community officials are scrambling to find homes for at least eight people after an early morning fire destroyed an apartment building in Elsipogtog First Nation.

The fire first broke out Wednesday evening and then reignited again several hours later.

There were eight apartment units in the building, which was reduced to rubble. The Canadian Red Cross said it arranged emergency housing for 10 adults and two children

For years, Elsipogtog has suffered a major housing shortage, forcing two or three families to live in one home at a time.

"It's a crisis and now we have another eight homes that just burned down," said Susan Levi-Peters, a former chief of Elsipogtog. 

"We have a huge backlog of housing already to begin with."

Right now, she said, the community needs 500 more housing units.

"If we work to build 500 houses today, then that would just maybe meet our housing backlog."

Surviving elsewhere

The fire started Wednesday night, was extingished, and then reignited, reducing the apartment building to rubble. (Photo: Jason Augustine)

After getting news of the fire, Levi-Peters immediately called the band manager and regional director general at Indigenous Services Canada in Amherst, N.S., to see if fire victims on Elsipogtog could live off-reserve temporarily, while still receiving band assistance.

Normally, if residents live off-reserve, they don't receive any financial help.  

"They would rather live in condemned homes or be overcrowded because we have a hard time surviving when we leave the reserve," Levi-Peters said. "It's two different worlds."

She is asking that a 40-kilometre radius for the social program to be expanded to areas like Richibucto, Rexton and Bouctouche.

At least 50 families would be moved to those areas, including people now living in overcrowded homes, previous fire victims and the victims of the fire Thursday.

Susan Levi-Peters, a former chief in Elsipogtog, says more needs to be done to solve the housing crisis in the community. (CBC)

"When they go to another system it's a culture shock," Levi-Peters said. "This way they'll still get their social services on reserve."

She's asking that people temporarily live in those communities for the next few years while  the band council solves the housing shortage.

On social media, the Elsipogtog band office said emergency measures officials are also responding to the housing crisis in the area for residents impacted by the latest fire.

"Our EMO team is ready to act on this emergency," said the Elsipogtog First Nation Band on Facebook.

"We are going through the steps right now to make sure those in need are going to be taken care of."

CBC News asked the band council and Indigenous Services Canada for more information.

"We were saddened to hear of the fire but are grateful that no lives were lost," said Edith Pedneault, a spokesperson for the Department of Indigenous Services. 

Officials from the federal department have been in touch with representatives from Elsipogtog First Nation throughout the day to provide assistance to the community.

"The eight families temporarily displaced by the fire will continue to receive financial assistance from ISC," she said. "The monies will continue to be delivered through the First Nation."

People losing hope

Levi-Peters said there have been three apartment building fires in the past few years and very few houses have been built.

Levi-Peters has said a team of community members developed a pilot project for on-reserve co-operative housing after looking at a number of community housing models.

Elizabeth Levi, a Mi'kmaq elder, talks about the housing shortage in her community 0:44

But more than a year later, their application to build 22 houses has not been approved by the regional director for Indigenous Services Canada.

The former chief said only six homes have been built on the reserve since 2008. Ten new houses are being built but Levi-Peters has said it's not enough.

Levi-Peters said the housing crisis has already been causing numerous social problems, including suicide and poverty.

"We have people losing hope."