Thunder Bay·Photos

Maxed out electricity supply fuels housing shortage in northern Ontario First Nation

The roof is caving in, the floor slopes and a small extension is pulling away from the rest of Edna McKay's house where she and five others live in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

200 homes are needed to reduce the overcrowding at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug

What does electricity have to do with the First Nations housing shortage? We'll take you to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug to explain

The roof is caving in, the floor slopes at strange angles and a small extension is pulling away from the rest of Edna McKay's house where she and five others live in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. 

"My daughter is sleeping on the couch and her baby is sleeping in the playpen," McKay said. The playpen blocks the doorway to a bedroom where her other grandchildren sleep on bunk beds that almost entirely fill the small space.

McKay's adult children have tried to move out, but there's no place for them to live in the community that needs 200 new houses to alleviate the overcrowding, according to McKay's brother Geoffrey, a band councillor for the First Nation.

No new homes can be built in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug because the community has reached capacity for its diesel-generated electricity supply.

Each solution to the housing shortage that is considered by the First Nations leaders is fraught with complications.

Social, environmental, economic cost of diesel

"We can't build new houses because we can't connect them," said Geoffrey McKay. "The only thing we can still do for these existing houses is to add two-bedroom extensions to them."

The social costs of relying on diesel power is compounded by environmental and economic costs.

It didn't get cold enough this year for the winter road to carry the weight of fully loaded tanker trucks, so the diesel to power the generators needs to be flown into Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.

The price of the fuel and the flights is in the millions. So the First Nation is looking at new options.

First Nations plan extension to electricity grid

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug is one of 20 First Nations planning to build an extension to Ontario's power grid.

They've formed a company called Wataynikaneyap, which means 'power line' in Oji-Cree, the local language.

Elders who attended a community information session about the transmission line on Wednesday expressed concerns about how it would affect wildlife. People here rely on birds and animals for food. The community has also created its own laws to protect the local watershed.

Geoffrey McKay said he's heard the elders concerns and admits he's skeptical of the plan too.

"I still go out in the bush to live off the land and from what I've seen out there from where the transmission lines are, it makes me kind of wonder what kind of damage it's going to bring," he said.

Some critics of both diesel and the power line project point to solar or wind as a solution, but studies show those options are not viable in the remote north at the scale First Nations need.

'How do we find that balance?'

"We do have to make sure there is a balance," Wataynikaneyap spokesperson John Cutfeet said about the environmental concerns, "because people also need power to run their communities."

"So that's going to be a decision people will have to make," he said. "How do we find that balance?"​

Early in May, the Ontario government will decide whether to designate the extension to its electricity grid as a priority project. 

Another government decision would be required to select Wataynikaneyap as company to lead the project.