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Cold snap draws attention to need for home maintenance on First Nation

Marva George has children and grandchildren living with her in her 52-year-old home on Berens River. A social media post by a friend on the weekend was shared 700 times showing sewage backed up in her toilet and bathtub. Joyce Semple / submitted

The effects of sudden cold weather along with a viral social media post from a Manitoba First Nation have put the housing crisis that exists in many communities back in the spotlight. But one community’s chief and council say it equally highlights the need for better home maintenance education for residents.

Over the weekend, Joyce Semple of Berens River First Nation, a four-hour drive north of Winnipeg, posted photos of her friend Marva George’s home where sewage had backed up, filling a bathtub and overflowing a toilet. It was shared on social media nearly 700 times as people expressed outrage that an amputee who uses a wheelchair who is caring for three grandchildren would be living in such conditions.

“That post was shared all over,” Semple told Global News. “Some people are asking how they can help, where they can mail things to help this family. It kind of opened a lot of eyes to what’s happening.”

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Unaware at the time of the post making rounds on social media, Berens River Chief Hartley Everett said band officials were making house calls all weekend for problems that occur when cold weather suddenly sets in.

“These are things that happen all over, including if you’re living in a house or apartment in the city,” Everett said. “Frozen or burst pipes — it happens.”

With two of the band’s plumbers sick and a third away for the weekend, the newly elected band council found themselves rolling up their sleeves to fix what they could, including installing heaters in crawl spaces to thaw pipes. Temperatures in Berens River dipped to -26 C Saturday and Sunday, with high winds making it seem even colder.

Coun. Jackie Everett said the sewage problems at George’s home were unrelated to the cold snap.

“We’re not sure exactly what happened in there but it’s cleaned up and the family is getting support.”

George told Global News she’s caring for three of her grandchildren while their mother is in Winnipeg awaiting surgery. The band, through Jordan’s Principle, may relocate her to the city with the children while repairs are made to her 52-year-old house.

The new council is struggling with old problems: overcrowding in aging homes made worse by lack of home maintenance and compounded by the sudden onset of harsh winter weather.

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“It’s not just in our community, it’s happening in most communities, particularly in the north,” he said.

Berens River has 2,200 people living on two reserves and census data shows most houses have more than five people living in them, putting substantial wear and tear on dwellings that were built to minimum construction standards.

“We need more people taking responsibility in maintaining their homes so they last longer,” Everett said, adding that an education campaign is in the works.

“We’ll use our radio and social media to show people basics of care and maintenance.”

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has a 127-page home maintenance guide for First Nations online that tackles everything from plumbing and electrical issues to how to winterize a house or fix damaged drywall, flooring, appliances and siding.

Statistics Canada data from 2021 shows one in five people living on-reserve were in a home that needed major repairs and was overcrowded. The problem is even worse in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Statistics Canada data from 2021 shows First Nations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan suffer the worst from overcrowding and homes needing major repairs. Statistics Canada

The Assembly of First Nations says $60 billion will be needed by 2030 to address the housing issues on First Nations.

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