COVID-19 has exposed homelessness, highlighted housing needs in northern Manitoba First Nation

COVID-19 has highlighted housing shortages in some northern First Nations in Manitoba just as the federal government announced funding for proposed solutions to the issue.

Federal government put out a call for proposals to solve housing shortages in remote communities

Pimicikamak Cree Nation received funding for temporary isolation units earlier this year to help deal with the pandemic. The chief, David Monias, said that housing is one of the band's highest priorities. (Submitted by Cathy Merrick)

A First Nation chief in northern Manitoba says COVID-19 has highlighted the urgency of his community's housing needs. His comments came as the federal government on Wednesday put out a call for housing solutions in the North.

"This COVID has really exposed homelessness for our people," said David Monias, chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation. 

"We didn't realize how many people are homeless. It just doesn't show, because so many of our people, our families and friends are taking these people in, to prevent them from sleeping outside."

These days, however, Monias said, "when [people] step out, they are scared that you are going to bring COVID back, so you have no place to stay." 

The community, also known as Cross Lake, is grieving the deaths of three children, ages 2, 13 and 17, who were killed in a house fire — a tragedy that some say also points to the need for housing support.

On Wednesday, federal Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion Ahmed Hussen and Minister of Northern Affairs Daniel Vandal announced the federal government was investing $80 million in Northern Access, a program aimed at coming up with supply-chain solutions for housing in the North and other remote communities.

The investment is the third round of the government's Housing Supply Challenge, which invites proposals for solutions that will help break down supply-chain issues in order to provide the materials required to build much-needed housing for Indigenous and northern communities across Canada.

Many end up couch-surfing in overcrowded homes

Pimicikamak Cree Nation — a community of 8,500 about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg — has been hit hard by COVID-19. Earlier this month, the community said 750 people were isolating during an outbreak that led to four hospitalizations and one death. And it is still averaging eight to 10 new cases per day.

The Nation is in need of 1,000 homes, Monias said, and as a result many people experiencing homelessness end up couch-surfing in overcrowded homes, which makes self-isolating difficult. 

In January, Indigenous Services Canada said Cross Lake would receive $4.38 million for temporary isolation accommodations, which would include the purchase, delivery, installation and furnishing of 16 ready-to-move structures, as well as a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility.

The community had applied for 100 homes through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's Rapid Housing Initiative in the past and was denied twice, Monias said.

'Not going to make a dent'

When asked about the housing situation in Pimicikamak Wednesday, Minister Hussen said that "the need is still there and my understanding is that there are still many other communities that are still in need of federal government housing support."

But the chief of Black River First Nation, which is 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, said the investment isn't likely to be enough to help communities in need. Black River has about 900 people living on reserve and is short about 100 homes, said Chief Sheldon Kent.

"Eighty million [dollars] is not going to make a dent because the homes are so overcrowded, so small," Kent said. "There's lots of infrastructure problems with the houses."

Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal (Saint Boniface -Saint Vital) said on Wednesday that there have been housing investments made in Indigenous communities in Manitoba, but there is still work to be done. (Radio-Canada)

Vandal said that there have been housing investments made in Manitoba but that the need is still great. 

"We will continue to work as a whole of government to advance the housing that's needed and make sure that it's constructed," said Vandal.


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1