MANY people who visit a remote fly-in First Nation for the first time come away feeling a bit shocked. Whether they are police officers, doctors, tradespeople or teachers, the scale of the poverty and lack of resources can take one’s breath away.
Can it really be that such deplorable living conditions exist in otherwise wealthy Ontario? Indeed they do, because seeing is believing.
Earlier this month, NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa implored Premier Doug Ford to visit Cat Lake First Nation, which is facing a severe housing crisis. Following an inspection, about 90 homes — the lion’s share of the housing units on the remote reserve of 500 — were found to be infested with mould and plagued by electrical deficiencies.
Mamakwa, who is from the remote north, toured some of the Cat Lake homes first-hand. He called the conditions “appalling.”
Sometime this week, federal officials are to travel to Cat Lake to get a handle on the situation and decide “the next steps.” They should not be surprised by what they see, given that Indigenous leaders have been flagging the housing “crisis” for decades.
As has been duly noted elsewhere, the crisis impacting remote fly-ins like Cat Lake, Attawapiskat and Kashechewan “didn’t happen overnight.”
Children, the elderly and those susceptible to respiratory infection in Cat Lake may have to be evacuated while an action-plan is put forward. Perhaps that will involve a massive cleanup of the homes that can still be salvaged, although Mamakwa said it is likely that most of the them are so badly contaminated they will have to be demolished.
When news of the Cat Lake crisis broke, the federal government pointed out it gives the community about $250,000 annually for housing requirements. That’s peanuts: it would cost that much just to build one house in the remote north.
What are the long-term solutions? For many years, there has been discussion about alternative types of construction — used in Scandinavia, for instance — that are better suited to withstand long, harsh winters.
And, more recently, Mamakwa and others have raised the prospect of establishing sawmills on remote reserves so they can process their own lumber; they are, after all, surrounded by forests.
In the shorter term, there is a dire need to train First Nation personnel to properly operate and maintain air-exchanger equipment. Every community should have at least one staffer who can do that job, ensuring that homes are inspected at regular intervals.
None of these things will happen unless there is political will, which can only be generated by constant public awareness. Sometimes that entails simple acknowledgment that Indigenous reserves still exist. To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Pikangikum First Nation, another remote Ontario reserve facing similar problems. But that was over a year ago; Trudeau hasn’t been back to Ontario’s remote north since.
Many non-aboriginal leaders are reluctant to venture to the north simply because it is not a good news story; inevitably they will be asked, possibly with cameras rolling, what they are doing to help solve its many problems.
Traditionally, the responsibility for Indigenous housing has fallen to the federal government. Indeed, former federal cabinet minister and now Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford was sure to underline that point when the Cat Lake situation made headlines.
Mamakwa is right, though: the province must get more involved, given the huge scale of the housing problem. Rickford, who has worked in the remote north as a nurse, has seen the crisis first-hand.
But Rickford is not the premier. Doug Ford, who is from Etobicoke, needs to go to Cat Lake, too. He needs to see for himself.