WINNIPEG — New federal money for First Nations housing is welcome but will not solve a monumental shortage for at least a generation, an indigenous leader said Wednesday.
“I don’t see it happening in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime, to be honest,” Kevin Hart, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said during a break in the assembly’s housing and infrastructure conference held in Winnipeg.
“We have 16, 18 people in a two-bedroom house (in Norway House, Man.). Now if that was to occur here in Winnipeg with a non-native family, would that be acceptable? The black mould that’s in our houses — would that be acceptable here in Winnipeg? Would that be acceptable in Toronto?”
The federal government has promised $8.4 billion over five years for infrastructure, education and other issues in First Nations communities. The housing portion over the next two years is forecast to be more than double previous levels at $450 million.
The money is a fraction of what reports have indicated is needed. Internal government documents dated January 2015 and obtained by The Canadian Press early this year pegged the cost of fixing First Nations housing in Manitoba alone at $2 billion.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government realizes it has a long way to go.
“We know that we’ve only begun, and what we’re hearing from coast to coast to coast is people are very happy with the beginning…but no, there is real need out there and we’re going to get going,” she said.
In a 20-minute speech at the conference, Bennett said the government is developing ways to ensure funding flows faster to communities in need, and is looking for ways to ensure better, longer-lasting building materials can be used.
Hart said cash for housing is needed quickly. He pointed to several communities that have seen a spike in suicides in recent years. Pimicikamak Cree Nation, known as Cross Lake, in northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency last March after six suicides in the community of 8,300.
Overcrowded housing, often combined with inadequate recreational facilities and schools, is tied to the despair felt by many residents, he said.
“It all relates and it interconnects with proper housing and infrastructure in our communities.”