The Mishkeegogamang First Nation in northwestern Ontario needs more than 300 homes, its chief says, and she hopes the First Nations housing shortage across the country will be high on the agenda when the prime minister meets with chiefs in Ottawa on Tuesday.
Mishkeegogamang Chief Connie Gray-McKay said she only wants one thing out of the chiefs' meeting with Stephen Harper this week — for basic human rights to be met on First Nations reserves.
“We're not asking for the sky, the stars and the moon. We're asking for basic things — and the most basic is food and shelter,” she said.
Gray-McKay wants to see an end to her people living in shacks and using outhouses.
There are 16 new homes on the First Nation this year — but no one lives in them yet.
“They're empty because hydro can't get here,” said Gray-McKay.
A bureaucratic maze has delayed the move-in dates — one more complication in getting people into healthy homes.
A generation ago, there weren't enough homes for the people who lived in Mishkeegogamang, located 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. A population boom has hit the community since then, and a third generation is now crammed into their grandparents' homes.
"The biggest thing is the overcrowding,” Gray-McKay said, but added that the homes are built with substandard materials and don't seem to last.
Resident Joshua Lawson said the living conditions make family life stressful. The murky brown water he pours from a plastic container into a pot is testament to the problems.
“That’s what we've been drinking … that's what we got to wash our clothes with too,” Lawson said.
He points to a bucket in the corner, which the family uses for a toilet.
‘I feel like a slum landlord’
During a tour of the community, the chief stops her van in front of a one-storey log cabin with a broken window.
“They're kind of embarrassed to [have] people here,” Gray-McKay said, noting that 18 people are crammed into the dwelling. “It's a grandmother, her children and the grandchildren.”
Next door, Steve Lawson, his wife and four kids live in a second-hand trailer the First Nation bought and towed here.
“We don't have no running water in this building,” Lawson said. “I'm using a slop pail for seven years already. My daughters are getting old; one of them is 16, so they need a clean washroom.”
Gray-McKay said the conditions are shameful.
“Sometimes I feel like a slum landlord because they're paying rent on houses they shouldn't be paying on — so you do the best you can,” she said, pointing out several houses in various states of disrepair.
“This one doesn't even have electricity or running water,” she said. “That second house there, the logs are rotting so bad,” she says. “My brother lives there and I think their house is going to fall apart. All these houses are old, they need to be renovated.”
She said her hope for the Tuesday meeting with the prime minister is that it helps Canadians understand they need to share the wealth. Several mining companies have operations near Mishkeegogamang, but few jobs are coming to the community.
“I'm going to make this as simple as possible, because there's nothing complicated about what's happening, and what the government could do is just listen,” Gray-McKay said.