Crushing housing pressure squeezes Attawapiskat community ever harder

The intractable housing crisis plaguing Attawapiskat and many First Nations communities across Canada is brought into sharp focus by Teresa Kataquapit.

ATTAWAPISKAT, Ont. — The intractable housing crisis plaguing Attawapiskat and many First Nations communities across Canada is brought into sharp focus by Teresa Kataquapit.

Standing in her three-bedroom home, Kataquapit, 75, eyes the broken, loose and stained ceiling tiles the heaving and cracked linoleum floors the plastic-covered and boarded-up windows.

“It’s very cold,” a somewhat embarrassed Kataquapit says in Cree.

“You can feel the drafts all over the place, the windows, the doors, everywhere. There’s mould in this house.”

The home to five people has been condemned as unfit. It’s one of about 80 homes in this hard-scrabble reserve in need of a bulldozer.

Yet like many other indigenous Canadians living on First Nations, Kataquapit continues to reside in a structure heated by a single woodstove. There is nowhere else for her to go.

“I was promised a house twice by the former chiefs,” she says. “But nothing to date.”

Her grandson, Frankie Kataquapit, 26, who works at the DeBeers diamond mine 90 kilometres away, says he wishes he could live in something better “every day.”

Attawapiskat has about 340 homes for its 2,100 residents, an average of seven people in each. Some house as many as 13 people. Coupled with substance abuse, the crowded conditions are fertile for abuse and despair — factors that play directly into the headline-grabbing suicide crisis afflicting the community.

With close to a quarter of existing units condemned, the pressure on the community is enormous and rising — the population is projected to grow by almost 20 per cent in the coming decade.

What you have, says Wayne Turner, the chief executive officer of the Attawapiskat First Nation, is the very definition of a housing crisis.

“Each and every year, there’s new demand,” Turner says in his construction-trailer office. “Our ability to provide housing is limited. We are limited by financial resources and capacity issues.”

Built on muskeg — soft, marshy wetland — in a region where temperatures can plunge into the minus-50s, home construction poses special challenges. About 75 per cent of the houses, poorly designed for the extreme climate, were built between 1960 into the 1990s — often on badly prepared sites and on inadequate foundations.

The spring thaw brings shifting structures, cracked walls, flooding, leaks and mould.

Louis Okimaw’s home might be accurately classified as a shack built almost 40 years ago.

Feeding the woodstove — hardly up to the job when temperatures reach Arctic levels — takes a $200 cord of wood every two weeks or less. That’s a lot cheaper than the electric heating standard in the few new homes around — with their window stickers proudly proclaiming “Low-E Glass” — where costs reach about $1,100 a month.

Still, finding wood — with no way to haul it given his broken snowmobile — adds to the miseries, Okimaw says.

“They don’t get the right kind of materials,” he says. “If I could win the lottery, I would buy my own house.”

In a perfect world, solving the housing crisis on Attawapiskat would require a large lottery win. At about $260,000 to build a four-bedroom home, just constructing 80 homes to replace the condemned ones would cost almost $21 million — an amount that grows by day.

It’s money no one seems to have in a community where unemployment and underemployment is rampant.

Neither the federal nor provincial governments have committed to cutting a cheque close to that size any time soon, although Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett did say she was aware of the issue during her fly-in visit to Attawapiskat on Monday.

In the interim, Kataquapit, her ailing husband in bed in one of the small rooms, says she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get to live in another home.

“I don’t blame anybody,” she says. “I’m just waiting for a new house — like everybody else.”

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