PIKANGIKUM, Ont.—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising a remote Northwestern Ontario reserve help with a housing shortage that the chief says is worse than ever.
Trudeau said during a visit to Pikangikum First Nation that Ottawa is serious about working with the community to improve its housing.
He said more and better housing in indigenous communities is one of his government's priorities.
Earlier in the day, Pikangikum Chief Dean Owen said the backlog of homes needing to be built on the reserve is almost twice as much as it was when he became chief.
Some new houses and a new school have been built, but the chief added construction on the reserve is hampered by a lack of electrical capacity.
The community called on Trudeau to come visit after a fatal fire in 2016 that killed six adults and three children under five in one home.
Trudeau told students during a question-and-answer session at the school that the government wants to make investments that are going to make a real difference.
“We know that unless you can start with safe, secure, adequate housing, it becomes difficult to succeed in anything else in life,” he said Friday.
"It is difficult to go to school, difficult to work, difficult to raise a family right.
“It needs to start with housing,” Trudeau stressed.
Owen said there were 1,800 band members in 2005 when he became chief of the reserve, about 500 km northwest of Thunder Bay.
“We had a shortfall, backlog of homes back then close to 300 homes,” he recalled in an interview Friday before Trudeau's arrival.
“Thirteen years later, we're at 3,100 people on reserve and the backlog has since almost doubled.”
Owen said an extended family of nine or 10 people often shares one of the reserve's existing homes and people are forced to sleep in shifts.
He added construction on the reserve is hampered by a lack of electrical capacity.
“The problem actually has to do with the size of the electrification that we have running diesel generators,” he explained.
“We maxed that out pretty much two years ago.”
The federal government last summer announced up to $60 million in funding to connect Pikangikum to Ontario's power grid.
Owen said that should help.
“That will definitely allow for more housing, more infrastructure,” he noted.
“We're pretty much in dire need for living like anyone else in Canada or Ontario—water and sewer in every home.”
Pikangikum faces challenges on top of substandard housing. A boil-water advisory has lasted more than a decade on parts of the reserve.
The community has a water treatment plant, but about 80 percent of homes are not connected and rely on truck delivery or hauling water by hand.
Trudeau said his government has eliminated boil-water advisories on about two dozen reserves and still is working to erase them entirely by March, 2021.
Suicide also remains prevalent.
Answering a question about young people killing themselves, Trudeau said the solution is twofold.
“We need to make sure that you're getting the support from people who will help you through that difficult moment,” he remarked.
“But we also need to make sure that it's not just a Band-Aid,” he stressed.
“That we are giving you opportunities to be hopeful about your future, about your capacity to build a better life, have a great family.”