Attawapiskat renovates temporary trailers for housing

Mining camp trailers that were meant to provide short-term emergency shelters in Attawapiskat are being renovated to help with the ongoing housing shortage.

De Beers donated housing units in 2009, but were only to be used as short-term emergency accommodations

Trailers used as housing in Attawapiskat were donated by the mining company DeBeers. The trailers were intended as a temporary solution to homes rendered unlivable by a sewage backup, but have since became permanent housing. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Mining camp trailers that were meant to provide short-term emergency shelters in Attawapiskat are being renovated to help with the ongoing housing shortage.

DeBeers spokesperson Tom Ormsby said the company is now lending a hand to renovate the trailers — donated in 2009 — to make them more livable. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

De Beers gave the trailers to the community several years ago as a temporary measure, but with the community’s housing problem not solved, the units are being renovated so they're more livable.

"This is the best option at the moment," said De Beers spokesperson Tom Ormsby.

"[The trailers] have fallen into various stages of disrepair. So that's the initiative right now, because there is still not enough suitable housing for everyone who is displaced."

First Nations housing in dire need of overhaul

The current crisis in the northern Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat may have brought the issue of First Nations housing into the headlines, but many reserves have been struggling with housing shortages and substandard living conditions for years.

Read more here. 

The work camp trailers were donated by the company in 2009. The were once used to house workers at the company's diamond mine west of the community.

"Really the origin of why the trailers were put together … [was for] emergency accommodation for almost 100 people who had no other place to go," Ormsby said.

‘Desperate for a house’

The trailers are now marked with graffiti and there's also mold and leaky windows. But De Beers is working with the community to make repairs. About 100 people from Attawapiskat work at the De Beers mine.

The donated trailers from DeBeers are being renovated to include kitchens. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Attawapiskat's housing manager said materials still have to be shipped up the ice road in the coming weeks, but work has started.

"I said to my workers, let's go ahead and go take the walls down. Start the work," Monique Sutherland said.

"Then, when the supplies come in, we can just go ahead."

Sutherland said it's frustrating that the reserve is working on yet another short-term solution.

Denise Okimaw lives in a room in a network of trailers that is usually used to house employees at remote work sites, like the nearby DeBeers diamond mine. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But the trailers are home for people like Denise Okimaw, who lives in one room — large enough for little more than a bed.

"For myself, I can't call it as a temporary [be]cause I am desperate for a house," she said.

Waiting list getting longer

Last winter, Chief Theresa Spence declared a state of emergency and Attawapiskat became an example of the substandard living conditions on some reserves across the country.

The federal government rushed 22 pre-fabricated homes to the community. A year later, one of the new modular homes has been destroyed by fire. The rest are serving their purpose as clean, safe homes.

One of the 22 homes shipped up to Attawapiskat last year has burned down. The remainder are being used a safe, clean housing. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

But Sutherland said the new homes have done little to ease the pressure.

She said the community needs 62 new homes, and 155 more need renovations, referring to a housing plan from 2010.

"[People] have been living in the overcrowded houses and they are sick and tired of this," she said.

Sutherland said nothing in the plan has come to fruition, and the waiting list only gets longer as the population grows.

In the longterm, the band has also been asked to provide a new housing plan to the federal government.

It's not clear how long it will take for Attawapiskat to truly solve its housing problems. Chief Spence returns home to the problems facing the reserve this week — and to questions about financial management raised by a federal audit.