WARNING: This post contains disturbing images
Cat Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario is facing a housing crisis that’s leaving children sick — and officials are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to see it for himself.
Images coming out of the First Nation show young children covered in red rashes, which community leaders say were caused by black mould building up in many of their homes.
The First Nation of about 700 people declared a state of emergency last month citing “profoundly poor conditions of housing,” as the cause of a public-health crisis, which has led to invasive bacterial disease, including lung infections.
The declaration listed mould, structural issues and a lack of funds for routine maintenance as the causes of health problems including invasive bacterial diseases and lung infections.
Derek Spence, the head councillor at the Cat Lake Band Office, told Global News that conditions are mostly affecting children.
“There’s a number of children that have eczema or other skin conditions,” he explained.
“They miss school because they’re being bullied. I’ve heard stories of even thinking of committing suicide because of their skin condition and being bullied about their skin condition.”
Spence criticized the Liberal government, saying it has not done enough since the state of emergency was declared.
“They said, ‘We’re working on making things happen,’ but to this day, we haven’t seen anything happen,” he said.
Spence, along with other officials such as Chief Matthew Keewaykapo, have called on Trudeau and Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan to come and see the deplorable conditions.
“Come and visit, see for yourselves,” Spence said. “We are not bluffing.”
Global News reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office on whether the prime minister has plans to visit the community or provide any emergency relief.
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PMO provided the following statement, which was given by Trudeau a day earlier: “We are working directly with the chief and with the council in Cat Lake. They’ve talked to us about what they completely need. We’re moving forward on accelerating repairs and more investments. There is always more to do but we are doing it directly with the community.”
Global News also reached out to O’Regan’s office, which did not provide information on any plans to visit.
“The Minister is planning to speak with Chief Keewaykapo later today to discuss the results of today’s meeting, confirm next steps, and address any other requests from the community,” a statement from O’Regan’s press secretary Rachel Rappaport read.
O’Regan released a statement on Monday, saying that senior regional officials in the community have been meeting to seek solutions for the “serious housing” situation.
“I know that residents of Cat Lake need immediate action, as well as long-term solutions. Our Government will continue to work in partnership with community leadership and the Windigo Tribal Council to move forward on this critical work,” O’Regan’s statement read.
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The statement said the plans will include forming a task force between Cat Lake, Indigenous Services Canada, and Windigo Tribal Council, which will help create a priority order for repairs, and allow the community to begin work immediately.
Meanwhile, NDP MP Charlie Angus visited Cat Lake First Nation, roughly 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, on Tuesday and said he was shocked by the living conditions.
Angus has since been calling for an urgent federal task force to deal with a “horrific” housing crisis.
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“Seventy-five per cent of the homes are so badly contaminated with mould they need to be demolished,” Angus told Global News on Thursday.
“What we saw in the homes is the effect of mould on children, on elders. Horrific, horrific health conditions faced by families.”
The MP for Timmins–James Bay said he had flashbacks to the 2012 Attawapiskat housing crisis and that the issues facing Cat Lake are emblematic of communities across northern Canada.
“Seeing it up close in home after home, seeing it in the face of the children,” Angus said. “It really shakes you up. When you have a mother standing in front of you weeping about her child.
Angus pushed Trudeau to label the housing crisis a “national disgrace” during question period on Jan. 30.
Trudeau responded by saying the Liberal government is “committed” to solving the issue, then switched focus to boasting about the government’s “unprecedented investments” into First Nations issues.
“We are, unlike what the member is saying, making significant progress in the community,” the prime minister said.
“We actually lifted the long-term drinking water advisory just this past December, but we know there’s lots more to do. That’s why we’re continuing to address the community issues in partnership, together.”
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Help needed urgently, Spence says
Spence explained that beyond visits to the community, what they’re really hoping for is emergency action in terms of getting temporary housing.
“We’re hoping that they can fund temporary housing, like mobile homes, so we can get people most affected out of these homes,” Spence said.
“At least commit to starting to work on our living conditions and start giving out adequate funding so we can properly build these homes.”