Federal government, Cat Lake First Nation reach agreement to repair, replace substandard housing

The federal government and First Nations leaders have signed an interim framework agreement to begin to repair and replace dozens of homes in a remote Indigenous community in northern Ontario that declared a state of emergency last month over dangerously inadequate, mould-infested housing.

Deal includes $10M to repair mould-infested homes in remote community

Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow, left, and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan announced an interim framework agreement in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Thursday to deal with the First Nation's housing crisis. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

The federal government and First Nations leaders have signed an interim framework agreement to begin to repair and replace dozens of homes in a remote Indigenous community in northern Ontario that declared a state of emergency last month over dangerously inadequate, mould-infested housing.

The agreement, which pledges over $10 million, came following a meeting Thursday that included Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan and Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow along with other First Nations leaders in Thunder Bay, Ont., about 600 kilometres south of Cat Lake First Nation.

It promises to begin to alleviate the community's crisis by providing $2.1 million for repairs and renovations to 21 homes, as well as $3.5 million for the construction of 15 new ones, $1.5 million for the associated demolition and site preparation and $3 million for the delivery and installation of 10 portable houses.

"I don't think there's any question ... that we need to do better," O'Regan told a press conference in Thunder Bay of the need to help the many Indigenous communities across Canada suffering under similar conditions. "We don't want children living like this anywhere in the country."

"So, where we can work with communities and where we can find resources available, we attempt to fix the problem."

The meeting also came three days after 48-year-old Nashie Oombash died in a Thunder Bay hospital. The Cat Lake resident had left the remote northern community three weeks prior to seek medical care.

The cause of Oombash's death is unknown pending an autopsy, but her family believes exposure to mould was a contributing factor.

Nashie Oombash, 48, died on Monday in Thunder Bay, Ont. Her family said she suffered severe respiratory issues due to the mould in her home on Cat Lake First Nation. (Family of Nashie Oombash)

Community leaders in Cat Lake sounded the alarm over what they called "profoundly poor" housing by declaring a state of emergency in January. They pointed to an independent housing report that highlighted several serious issues with dozens of the community's homes, including excessive mould, leaking roofs and foundation issues.

The homes are being blamed for frequent and chronic medical issues in dozens of residents, many of whom need to be airlifted out of the First Nation for hospital treatment.

The crisis has reached both Parliament Hill and Queen's Park, with federal and provincial opposition members repeatedly calling for action by their respective governments.

Building assessments have called for 87 houses in the community to be demolished.

Cat Lake's leaders have called for something to be done quickly, in part due to the upcoming end of the winter road season — the only method by which materials and portable houses could be transported by ground. The community is only accessible by air year-round or by Ontario's ice road network in the winter months.

The signed agreement said that Cat Lake and Ottawa will monitor and maintain the winter road "to ensure access to Cat Lake First Nation for people and materials for as long as possible for the 2019 winter road season."

Watch Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan on the plan for Cat Lake:

'This is not how people should be living in Canada,' says Indigenous Services Min. Seamus O'Regan. 7:12

O'Regan and Cat Lake's leaders agreed on Thursday that the housing pledged in the interim agreement is all the winter roads will be able to handle this year.

"We looked at the timeline we have with the winter road, like we have about less than 30 days," Keewaykapow said. "We have a lot of work to do."

The chief added that he would have liked to see Ottawa step in sooner.

"It wasn't easy putting this thing together."

Community leaders have said that Cat Lake may need to be evacuated due to the existing substandard housing; one official at Thursday's signing said some people may still need to leave the community.

The interim agreement goes into effect today, with a final agreement scheduled to be signed within two weeks.

With files from Connie Walker and Anita Elash