The Canadian government is promising more than $10 million to build new homes, repair others, and put portables in place for a remote indigenous community in Northern Ontario where sub-standard, mould-infested housing has sparked a health crisis, according to a framework agreement signed Thursday.
The interim deal, signed in Thunder Bay, Ont. by Indigenous Services minister Seamus O'Regan and local First Nation leaders, will be followed by a memorandum of agreement to be signed in two weeks in Cat Lake First Nation itself.
According to the framework deal, Ottawa will provide $3.5 million for 15 new homes, $1.5 million to demolish dilapidated structures and prepare the lots, and $2.1 million to repair and renovate 21 houses.
“The homes that will be demolished and replaced by new units have been determined to be priorities . . . as homes that cannot be repaired for less than the cost of a new house,” the framework states.
In addition, the government will put up another $3 million to ensure delivery and installation of 10 portable houses in Cat Lake, which also can be used for transitional housing.
A copy of the interim agreement obtained by The Canadian Press did not contain timeframes but a temporary warehouse, however, will be built as a “first priority.”
“We all feel a sense of urgency about this,” O'Regan said in an interview from Thunder Bay.
“My dearest hope is that we get as much over the winter road as we can in the limited weeks that we have ahead of us.”
The minister added he was hoping to see at least a “sliver of progress” by the time he visits Cat Lake in two weeks.
Remote Cat Lake, a fly-in Ojibway community of about 450 people, is about 180 km north of Sioux Lookout.
One major issue is ensuring the existing ice road—the community's only land access—is capable of supporting the loads required to get portables and building supplies to Cat Lake.
The agreement calls for the road to be kept usable for as long as possible this season.
Among those at Thursday's meeting was Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow, who called it a “ground-breaking” day.
“I'm pleased to see we are moving forward in a positive direction,” Keewaykapow said.
The Cat Lake band declared an emergency in mid-January, saying terrible housing had led to severe lung and skin ailments, especially affecting about 100 children.
The framework agreement, signed on behalf of Cat Lake by the Windigo Tribal Council, specifically recognizes the declaration.
It also calls for establishment of a technical team under a project manager to implement the housing plan and the appointment of a manager to maintain the units.
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, of which Cat Lake is a part, said the agreement is “ambitious” but called that necessary given the scope of the problem.
“This really demonstrates to the community that there's an actual commitment to fix these homes and to improve the lives of community members,” Fiddler said.
At the legislature, Ontario Indigenous Affairs minister Greg Rickford said he had been in discussions with Cat Lake leaders, and pointed a finger at the federal government.
“We're co-ordinating our efforts with respect to their declaration of an emergency response,” Rickford noted.
“We continue to help them find solutions for their housing crisis.”
O'Regan said he hoped the province would take what the federal government now had committed as a sign of good faith.