Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario declares state of emergency over housing

CAT LAKE, Ont. — The leadership of Cat Lake First Nation in northern Ontario has declared a state of emergency, citing “profoundly poor conditions of housing” as the cause of a public health crisis.

The declaration lists excessive mould, structural issues and a lack of funds for routine maintenance as causing health issues that include invasive bacterial diseases and lung infections.

Chief Matthew Keewaykapow and Cat Lake’s have ordered that the provincial and federal governments step in with an investment plan, as well as an intervention or evacuation plan.

The council has also asked Health Canada to provide detailed plans and a timeline for how the issue will be addressed.

“People continually encounter the effects of federal and provincial jurisdictional squabbling leading to inequitable access to not only health care, but meaningful solutions to the epidemic proportions of the emergency,” the declaration of emergency reads.

Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford said that while “the declaration of a social emergency is of great concern” to his government, on-reserve housing is a federal responsibility.

In a written statement, Rickford called on the federal government to “deliver immediate relief” to the Cat Lake community and notes that he is monitoring the situation closely.

Newly minted Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan said he spoke with both Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Keewaykapow about the crisis.

“They expressed to me the significant challenges the community is facing and the need to have a concrete action plan to resolve them,” he said in a written statement. “I indicated that our department officials will continue to work closely with them to develop an action plan to address the community’s needs.”

Martine Stevens, a spokeswoman for Indigenous Services Canada, said that “technical officials” will meet with the First Nation on the week of Jan. 28 “to develop a plan of action to address the community’s needs.”

Stevens said that in December, the department approved $200,000 for a comprehensive inspection that called for the demolition of 87 of the 110 homes it looked at.

Fiddler called on both the feds and the province to work together to address the crisis in Cat Lake, calling the housing conditions in the community unacceptable.

“It is unacceptable that the people of Cat Lake suffer in living conditions that would be intolerable in mainstream society,” he said in a written statement. “We will support Chief and Council to ensure that the necessary housing improvements are made available as quickly as possible, especially for high-risk community members such as infants and youth, the infirmed and the aged.”

Fiddler noted that the leaders of NAN’s 49 First Nations — including Cat Lake First Nation — declared a collective housing emergency in 2014 due to shoddy housing and related health effects.

The remote community of Cat Lake, home to 565 people at the time of the 2016 census, is located several hundred kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

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