Manitoba’s First Nations are living in some of the most dilapidated houses in the country, and internal government documents estimate it will cost $2 billion to tackle the widespread mould and overcrowding issues in this province.
That’s almost 13 times more than the $150 million the federal government has budgeted for housing on all reserves across Canada this year.
Waywayseecappo First Nation chief Murray Clearsky says his community needs at least 130 new houses built to address overcrowding. This year, the band has enough funding to build 10 new homes and renovate four existing units.
“We’re not capable of pulling out of that Third World style of living because we have no resources, we have really no economic development in our communities and our populations are growing,” Clearsky said. “It’s just a Band-Aid fix.”
Waywayseecappo only has 460 homes to accommodate the 2,800 people living in the community, and Clearsky says he has seen as many as 12 people living in a three- or four-bedroom unit.
If he could build 20 new houses annually, the First Nation chief says he would be able to slowly catch up with the need — an impossible feat, according to Clearsky, since the community doesn’t get enough capital funding to build on top of the government allowance.
“We can’t afford it, 20 homes, that’s a few million dollars and when you only get $635,000 for capital it’s difficult,” he said.
Reports from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation, say the housing situation in Manitoba has worsened as infrastructure funding has been siphoned off to other areas.
“As a result, Manitoba First Nations continue to face further deterioration in infrastructure,” says the internal report, dated January 2015.
“Current estimates indicate a $1.9B need to address existing overcrowding, replacement and major repairs related to mould and substandard conditions of housing units. Key challenges continue to include affordability, low income and high social assistance rates.”
The report notes Manitoba has among the highest percentage at 29 of indigenous people living in poor housing in Canada. Officials say Alberta is the only other province in a similar situation.
One-quarter of existing homes on reserves in both provinces need to be repaired or replaced.
On Monday, Birdtail Sioux First Nation Chief Ken Chalmers was driving around and taking stock of the community’s major housing issues. Mould caused by poor air flow and aging septic systems top the list for many of Birdtail’s 140 houses.
“The septic fields are 25 years old and they’re failing,” Chalmers said. “For every house, we’re only allowed two pump-outs per year, and we’re doing it every week.”
The chief says Birdtail has already spent $70,000 out of pocket to mitigate the sewage problems.
Chalmers is preparing to ask the federal government for 14 new houses this year — even though the First Nation located 135 kilometres north of Brandon only qualifies for one new house per year according to federal funding rules.
“They’re very punitive at the (INAC). If you don’t do your reporting properly ... you don’t get any houses,” he said, adding that if other First Nations don’t meet all of the government’s requirements, Birdtail is able to absorb their housing allotment. “It’s always coming from the top down on us, and it should be the other way around.”
Chalmers says poor housing conditions are the root of many social issues in Birdtail, including child welfare.
“(Child and family services) comes here and you don’t have a bed or you don’t have a window and they take your children away,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our children on the reserve and we’re trying to find money to buy beds and fix the windows — our biggest debt load is housing in Birdtail.”
Ultimately, Chalmers thinks the First Nations housing system is due for an overhaul and he hopes the government addresses this with its forthcoming budget.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said she’s not deterred by the $2-billion price tag. She couldn’t explain exactly how the new Liberal government will tackle the backlog, but said improving First Nations housing is a priority.
“I’ve been in those homes,” Bennett said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “It is a disgrace for Canadians to watch. There is a consensus in this country that we have got to get going on this.
“The sticker shock on any of these things can’t get in the way of us beginning what has to happen.”
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from The Canadian Press