North·NWT Housing Crisis

A trailer fire separated this N.W.T. family 3 years ago. They're still waiting for a place to live

The Firths are still waiting for a place to live in Fort McPherson after a fire tore down their trailer in 2018. A new unit is crucial, they say, to reunite their family after so much time apart.

Wilbert Firth has been couchsurfing in Fort McPherson since 2018

Wilbert Firth's family trailer burned down in 2018. For the last three years, he's been couchsurfing between his cabin and his mother's place while waiting for his own home. He says a home of his own would mean his family could re-unite, and he could start contributing back to his community. (Anna Desmarais/CBC )

This is part three of a series on the housing crisis in the Northwest Territories.

The Firth family trailer went up in flames one early morning in July 2018. 

Wilbert Firth and his wife Christine were at a family member's house outside of town when they got the news. 

"I was shocked," Wilbert told CBC News. "I was immediately worried about my daughter, if she was in there." 

The couple quickly made their way back to town, in time to see the fire rip through their home. The flames died and came back three times before firefighters finally got it under control.

"My whole life, everything was gone in half an hour," Christine said, holding back tears. "I felt like a nobody, because I didn't have anything."  

The cause of the fire, Wilbert said, is undetermined. (The office of the N.W.T.'s fire marshall didn't respond to a request to confirm the result of that investigation).  

The couple is sharing their story because, three years after the fire, they are still unable to find a place to live in Fort McPherson, N.W.T. A public housing unit would be crucial, they say, in re-uniting their family after so much time apart. 

The fire's aftermath

In the hours after the fire, Fort McPherson rallied behind their own. They showered the Firths with food, clothing and homeware donations. 

It's all stored in a warehouse downtown, untouched, while the Firths wait for their next place. 

Fort McPherson, with a population of 741, doesn't have an emergency shelter, nor many public housing units. The limited options meant the Firths had to make hard decisions for what to do next.

For Christine, it meant starting over in Inuvik, N.W.T. — splitting the couple up for the first time in their lives. 

Wilbert couldn't live in Inuvik, because he still relives trauma from attending residential school there. Staying back in McPherson also meant he could take care of his elderly mother. 

While Wilbert finds the time to come visit Christine on occasion, they don't see each other often. 

"We used to laugh alot, and now its not as laughable as it used to be." - Christine Firth

"I really feel like I'm alone," Wilbert said. "I don't know what it is." 

Back in Fort McPherson, Wilbert moves between his cabin at 8 Mile, just outside of town, and his mother's place. 

The time apart frayed their marriage, but Christine said having a unit in the community means they would have a chance to work it out. 

"We used to laugh a lot, and now it's not as laughable as it used to be," she said. "If we both worked at it, it should work out." 

This is the lot where Wilbert Firth's trailer used to stand in the southeast part of Fort McPherson. Crews came to clear out the lot shortly after the fire. (William Firth/CBC )

For Wilbert, it could also mean directing his energy to other things. Wilbert, a former president of the Tetlit Gwich'in, says he could run for office again — or find another way to give back to his community. 

But for now, the stress of having no fixed address eats at him everyday. 

"A lot of times I don't want to get up, there's no reason to get up," Wilbert said. 

'It just doesn't make sense'   

Two decades before the fire, Wilbert bought a piece of land on the southeast side of town to set up his brand-new trailer. It wasn't much, but it was enough space for him, Christine, one of their daughters and her six-year-old son. 

By 2016, the trailer's sewage system, windows and certain parts of the bathroom needed to be repaired. So he asked the N.W.T. Housing Corporation for a forgivable loan, which was granted. 

After finishing the repairs, the corporation handed Wilbert a bill for around $60,000 — something he says was never part of the paperwork he signed for the loan. (CBC has not been able to independently verify Wilbert's claims.)

"It just doesn't make sense. There's no justice for me. Any normal person would look at this and say 'hey this is wrong.'" - Wilbert Firth

After the fire, Wilbert said he was put on the list for a public housing unit. Every time he checked on his status with the local housing office, he said he kept getting pushed further down the list. 

"That's how it is with housing, it just doesn't make sense," Wilbert said. "There's no …  justice for me. Any normal person would look at this and say 'hey this is wrong.'" 

In a statement, the N.W.T. Housing Corporation said those who apply for repair-related loans from the corporation get full forgiveness as long as they don't default on their agreement. If that happens, the corporation will start collecting funds to make up the difference. 

A photo of Fort McPheson's local housing authority office. Every time Wilbert Firth checked with his local office, he says he was put lower on the waitlist for a public housing unit. (William Firth/CBC )

Anyone that is in arrears is asked to work with the Corporation to find a repayment plan that might work for them. 

When asked about Wilbert's case, the N.W.T. Housing Corporation said they cannot comment on individual cases for privacy reasons. 

The Corporation says anyone who's been displaced by a fire should be reaching out to their local district office to find the best supports for them. 

In some cases, they might also qualify for the Corporation's Homeless Assistance Fund — a support for anyone experiencing a "housing-related crisis" and risks becoming homeless. 

'Something needs to be done' 

Frederick Blake Jr., the MLA for Mackenzie Delta, said he's lobbied the housing minister and the N.W.T. Housing Corporation at least once every two months since the trailer fire in 2018. 

He's surprised it's taken so long for the department to give Wilbert a new place. 

"Losing your house is really challenging," Blake Jr. told CBC. "I can't imagine all the stress [Wilbert] is going through since then. I know that something needs to be done." 

Frederick Blake Jr., the MLA for Mackenzie Delta, says he's lobbied the housing minister and the N.W.T. Housing Corporation every two months since the 2018 trailer fire. He says communities should consider setting aside at least one unit to use in emergencies like the Firths. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Blake Jr. thought for sure Wilbert's problems would be resolved when a new seniors housing centre opened up in 2019, because he'd be given one of the eight new units available. But, like other types of housing in the community, he said the waitlist far exceeds what the community has.

Another reason why waitlists are so long is an influx of young people moving back to Delta communities, Blake Jr. said, so it's not impossible for someone like Wilbert to be waiting more than three years for a place to live. 

Blake Jr. suggests communities hold on to at least one of their units for emergency situations, so other people who lose their homes, like the Firths, have a place to go. 

"It just goes to show that a lot of the policies really need to be changed especially for emergency situations," Blake Jr. said. "There should be ways to resolve this."