Friday, April 1, 2016

Housing - the biggest Challenge facing First Nations in Canada

Aubree, Amber and Ireland
Three Children who, on March 29, 2016, perished
in a house fire on a Remote North Ontario
 First Nations Reserve. Six Adults also died

First Nations chief blames ‘Third World’ living conditions for fatal fire on reserve“We can’t let these people die in vain,” says Ontario’s Regional Chief Isadore Day about deadly house fire at Pikangikum First Nation community.

All too often, particularly in the cold Canadian winter months...we hear about these tragedies.  Entire families wiped out in house fires in remote First Nations communities. Read the story from the Toronto Star below and I will have my thoughts and comments to follow:

From the Toronto Star
By:  Staff Reporter, Published on Thu Mar 31 2016"They were gone in an instant, three innocent lives gone in a single night.
A recent photo posted online is one of the few traces of their tiny faces that remain. In it, the three siblings stare into the camera. Their cheeks are chubby, their dark eyes full of curiosity. The youngest girl’s arm, still draped in baby fat, reaches towards the lens.
None of them were even five years old. All of them are dead, the smallest victims of a devastating tragedy that struck a remote First Nation community in northern Ontario this week.
The blaze that engulfed a home in Pikangikum late Tuesday night killed nine members of the same family — six adults and three children — and has shaken a reserve that is no stranger to misfortune.
The Ontario Provincial Police would not confirm Thursday the number of dead or the names of the deceased. But Pikangikum residents and a fundraising page set up for relatives identified the victims as Dean and Annette Strang, their daughter Faith, Faith’s partner Dietrich Peters and the younger couple’s three children — Ireland, 4, Aubree, 2, and eight-month old Amber. The Strangs’ son Gilbert and his partner Sylvia Peters also died in the fire.
While the community waits for answers about the fire’s cause, a First Nations leader said the deaths should spur the federal government to improve what he said are deplorable conditions on dozens of reserves.
“We can’t let these people die in vain,” said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day on Thursday.
“There should be a direct and immediate response to this situation. This is typical across all First Nations that are living in Third World conditions.”
Previous inquests into similar tragedies have highlighted the challenges facing remote northern reserves such as Pikangikum. Some homes are dilapidated, not built to code and often don’t have running water, let alone a smoke detector. There are often several generations of families sharing a tiny bungalow, heightening the potential toll fires can take when they break out.
An internal federal government report examining insurance coverage for First Nations found almost half across Canada had “little to no fire protection” and relied too heavily on poorly trained volunteer firefighters. The 2011 report, obtained by The Canadian Press through access-to-information legislation, determined that First Nations residents were 10 times more likely to die in a house fire than someone living off reserve.
The Pikangikum Water Project has estimated that up to 95 per cent of the reserve’s homes are without running water, and on Thursday Regional Chief Day raised concerns about firefighters having access to hydrants to put out fires in the town.
The reserve has a fire truck, but according to resident Kyle Peters, there are only a few hydrants placed at strategic locations like the school and health clinic.
“There was no chance for even putting the fire out,” he said of Tuesday’s blaze...
...Although Pikangikum has struggled for years with addiction issues and a staggering suicide rate, Peters said the fire was likely the worst disaster to ever hit his community. He reported that hundreds of mourners gathered near the charred remains of the home Wednesday night for a vigil, and people lit floating lanterns and strung candles around the fire scene.“It’s probably the most devastating day ever in Pikangikum . . . . Losing that many lives in one day, one night,” he said.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Thursday the deaths underscore the need to improve living conditions on reserves. She said money in the recent federal budget will help improve the deplorable state of reserve housing. But she couldn’t say when a community such as Pikangikum could expect vastly improved living standards.
“We are in the process of beginning that, one step at a time,” Bennett said. “In places like Pikangikum, there is a demonstrated need that it’s a high priority.”
National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said the federal budget was a good start to make up for decades of neglect. Too many indigenous people are dying in fires that are completely preventable, he said.
“How many more deaths have to happen before action is implemented? It’s not acceptable in 2016.”

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Working with First Nations families for eight years as a social worker in the inner city of metro Vancouver...I developed a perspective of their situation in contemporary Canadian society and what their real needs are.

Appropriate, affordable housing is the number one need of not only First Nations people but ALL disadvantaged people that come in contact with the social services. There is no doubt about that in my mind.  Many times I would step beyond the boundaries of my job description and make "cold calls" to apartment rental agencies in an effort to find housing that would keep my families together.

Sometimes I would get families into "subsidized housing" in nice neighbourhoods...only to find the situation break down within months due to addiction...the second most serious challenge. Finally, after a few years...I realized that the two (housing and addiction) were inextricably connected. Western-style housing made First Nations addiction problems worse. The housing did not suit First Nations cultural needs and was, in fact, toxic to them. How was this?

Western housing is generally a box with separate compartments for cooking, personal hygiene, relaxing and sleeping. Time and again I would find that First Nations women (the matriarchs in a matriarchal society) would have their families congregate in the living room...using it for sleeping, eating and just about everything else. They would use the bedrooms for hoarding and for "renting out" to extended families.

After a few years, I realized that First Nations Women still wanted to live communally...even though they were living in a "white society". Within their own walls...they rejected western culture and lived their own way...but it doesn't work in western homes and apartments.  Finally, I designed in my mind an appropriate housing design for First Nations. It's kind of a large "Yurt", "Lodge" or round wooden-framed building with a huge common area in the middle surrounding a fire pit. Sleeping accommodations are along the wall. Everyone sleeps in the common area separated by curtains between families. Cooking and hygiene needs are accommodated in an outer ring around the inner communal area. These areas are separated into individual family "homes".  A third ring is a porch-like covered but open area around the inner circles where families can sit outside...facing the world or in the case of remote communities...facing the forests. Track housing along western-style streets and rural roads just doesn't work for indigenous people...it leads to isolation...loss of culture...and destructive addiction.

First Nations leaders and elders are calling for better housing. I agree and, incidentally, elders play a pivotal role in First Nations culture. Any communal living would have to have a social organization premised on the role of the elders. When calling for better housing...governments would do well to consult with the communities about what kind of housing suits the people involved.  Yes, they need safe water and they need electricity and they need strongly built housing...not the flimsy plastic building materials of the white society. First Nations people really "use" their housing...they bring their outdoor equipment in (I even saw a family once who lived illegally in an industrial warehouse-zoned site and brought their cars into their living rooms and sat in them to watch TV!)  So First Nations housing has to be built sturdily and have the latest safety and fire protection equipment.

I do believe that if the Canadian government sat down with First Nations and designed appropriate housing for them and then made the investment necessary in all the communities...there would be a sharp decline in the social problems of addiction and suicide. Would a young First Nations man or woman consider suicide if, every night, they sat around an open fire in a communal home setting... listening to the stories of the elders...and had the comfort of their extended families close by? Let's try it and see!!

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