Darlene Necan is a member of the Ojibways of Saugeen First Nation, but she's been unable to acquire housing in that community, about 400 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, since the reserve was created in the late 1990s.
Last year, Necan began building with donated materials on land where her family home once stood, 20 kilometres south of her reserve, in the unorganized township of Savant Lake, Ont.
"This is my castle and I'm so proud to have it, even though it's not done yet," Necan said during a recent visit to the one-room, plywood house she is not allowed to live in.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has charged Necan with breaches of the Public Lands Act that carry fines of up to $10,000, and up to an additional $1,000 fine each time she is caught continuing to build. Necan believes it is because somehow the place she grew up has become Crown land. The ministry did not respond to questions from CBC News about this story.
'A lot of times I cry'
As an unorganized township, Savant Lake doesn't have a municipal leader. Denis Mousseau owns the only store, across the street from his hotel, on one of the community's two main roads.
"It's a common thing for First Nations people to do, is build their own house without title to the land," Mousseau said. "First Nations people have the right to do that and I don't see why [the Ministry of] Natural Resources should be hassling her over this."
Necan has boarded up the unfinished doorway to her cabin for the winter, and said she feels "shattered" by the charges against her. Her next court date is Nov. 20.
"I still keep going with this fight no matter how awful it makes me feel for trying to house myself and help people, because a lot of people don't believe in themselves or that things can change if you fight hard enough," Necan said, her voice cracking.
"It's what I try to believe. I try to be hopeful. That's hard too and a lot of times I cry by myself here. But I talk to my [late] mom and my [late] dad and it keeps me going because I keep thinking of them."
'Not any better in the city'
Necan has spent much of her adult life couch-surfing among relatives and camping out on the family trap line when the weather allows. The 55-year-old was looking forward to a different life, living in her own home and offering shelter to family members.
"This is exactly the same spot where we lived," Necan said. "We slowly started moving to the cities because we didn't have anything after my dad got hurt and we were pretty well desperate."
Necan's father was injured while working for the railway.
"My family... they're not any better in the city than they were here," she says. "Here, at least they were free to roam around in the bush and go hunting and all that, but in the city you need at least five, 10 bucks to even live for the day."
'Aren't we under treaty?'
Fewer than 100 people live on the reserve up the road. Edward Machimity has been chief for nearly two decades, since the reserve was created. Necan said he refuses to help her, or even answer her questions.
"He has said that he has to be careful about how he helps the off-reserve people and that really got me confused because I thought, aren't we on Anishinaabe land right now? Aren't we under treaty?" Necan said.
"Isn't this why we elected him for, is to help all people, not only the people inside reserve? That is so crap because natives are scattered all over Canada. How can they say only the people on reserve have rights?"
Machimity did not return repeated calls from CBC News.
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