Six more people have come forward with complaints about housing on the northern Alberta reserve of Cold Lake First Nations.
A CBC News report in January showed that Gary Grandbois lives in a shack he says the band gave him 12 years ago, without running water, power or a proper heat source.
Since publication of that story — in which the band said it was only just learning of Grandbois’s situation — nothing has changed for Grandbois and he said there’s no indication any action will be taken.
“If they were going to do something for me, they would have come here to explain to me or help me or something,” Grandbois said.
In response to a request for an update on Grandbois’s situation, the band said in an email that the housing department will reach out to him “in the next couple of weeks to further discuss his housing situation.”
CBC has since spoken to other band members who say they have been struggling to work with the reserve’s leaders to improve their living situations. They believe the reserve, 275 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, has the financial means to address the problems.
“Cold Lake First Nations is deeply concerned about the housing situation in our community,” band leadership said in a statement to CBC News. “The safety, health and well-being of our members remains the Nation’s top priority, and we will continue to work diligently toward developing a long-term, sustainable housing solution.
“Cold Lake First Nations has, for many years, experienced a severe lack of funding to substantially address our housing needs. Any substantive solution will require significant new financial support from our federal and provincial counterparts.”
‘He can fix his own house’
Dale Jacko, who now lives in Saskatchewan, said the band has had difficulty meeting members’ housing needs for at least a decade.
Jacko said he was hired by the band in 2008 to do housing inspections, reporting to a housing manager.
“I took these inspections back and these reports back to him and I say, ‘OK, this one really, really needs … this elder fellow really needs his house fixed,’ ” Jacko recalled saying.
“He said, ‘Eff him. He can fix his own house.’ “
The band said in an email that it is unable to confirm decisions made 10 years ago.
Black mould and mice
George Noel showed CBC a 2016 report from an independent inspection that found black mould in his house. “Fungal spores are found everywhere,” the report said.
Late in 2016, the First Nations Inuit Health Branch did its own inspection of Noel’s home. That report, which was sent to the band office, acknowledges small patches of mould in the basement and around the windows and said there could be more hidden in the walls.
Noel said when the stove was moved a few years ago, ants poured out from behind “like fine red dust … and I have neighbours inside, too — like, you know, mice and stuff like that.”
Daughter took up fight
Noel, a former band council member, is fighting band leadership over the most recent election in 2016, when he was barred from running for chief.
The court ruled that a judicial review should be permitted because there was insufficient evidence to support keeping him off the ballot. The band is appealing the judgment.
The band said it won’t meet with Noel because of the legal proceedings.
“Chief and council reserve the right to protect the Nation from potential exposure to liability arising from active legal proceedings against the Nation,” the band said in a statement, adding that lawyers would have to be present.
Noel’s daughter, Claudette Machatis, took up the fight for repairs or renovations to her father’s home.
Machatis moved to Edmonton in September 2017 with her son and grandson. Noel said he didn’t want them exposed to the mould any longer.
“My parents still live there. They have nowhere else to go,” said Machatis, who visits her father on the reserve to clean the house and “help keep the mould down” as much as possible.
“The frustrating part is they took a health problem and made it into a political one,” Machatis said.
Band makes housing decisions
While the reserve has a housing department, housing decisions affecting the 1,300 people who live in the band’s 300 houses are made by Chief Bernice Martial and council.
Coun. Dean Janvier, who holds the housing portfolio, told CBC News in January that the band receives $198,000 in federal funding for housing each year.
“Every other dollar that we spend every year is from our own-source revenue,” Janvier said then. “Any success in housing has nothing to do with the federal government and has everything to do with Cold Lake First Nations having the economic wherewithal, through its own efforts, to be able to invest in our own community.”
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) confirmed in an email the band receives an annual housing allocation of $198,000 from Indigenous Services Canada.
Cold Lake First Nations also gets $186,000 each year for “minor capital allocation,” which has been used for housing maintenance and utility installations, INAC said.
The band also received $250,000 for 10 housing renovations in 2017-18 “to address immediate housing needs,” INAC said.
CBC has agreed not to identify one band member who said his longstanding application for renovation funding was approved the day after CBC contacted the band about housing concerns.
“I hope they come through,” the man said.
The band, with 16 wholly-owned businesses and money in trust from a land-claim settlement, has assets worth about $100 million, according to Edmonton forensic accountant Justin Thoman, who examined consolidated financial statements posted on INAC’s website.
The band said in an email that “a large portion” of the nation’s investments relate to assets that are not able to be converted into cash. The businesses “return significant resources” to address programming needs, but “do not have the resources available to enable the Nation to meet its significantly underfunded housing needs.
“The Nation has had to work hard to find the dollars on its own to address the nation’s housing needs.”
‘They tell people there is no money’
Janice Minoose, a psychologist, worked at the band’s wellness centre between 2012 and 2016, but lived in a condo in Cold Lake because she couldn’t get housing on the reserve.
“They tell people there is no money,” Minoose said of band leaders. “You can’t have renovations. Or they say, ‘Oh, in the spring, we’ll get to it.’
“It’s just like a little banana republic,” she said. “They can just decide whatever they want whenever they want.”
In response to these allegations, the band said in an email that when it comes to housing, it addresses members with the greatest needs first.
“Chief and council are elected officials and are empowered by Nation members to represent and make decisions that are in the best interest of the Nation,” the band said.
Like Noel, Minoose was barred from running for council in the last election. After that, she moved to southern Alberta.
Unlike Jacko, Machatis and Minoose, Tannis Piche left the reserve unwillingly.
Her house burned down in October 2011 and was never replaced, said Piche, who describes herself as homeless.
Piche is now living in at her ex-partner’s house in Edmonton, with their children and young grandchildren.
Her dream is to move back to the reserve. She said her name is on the wait list for housing but she has not had any responses from the chief to letters asking for help.
Finally last fall, Piche said she visited Martial before a band meeting.
“She basically said she’s never seen any letters. They never hit her desk,” Piche said.
The band said in an email that there are more than 300 outstanding applications for housing from members in need of new homes.
Off-reserve kids miss out
It’s difficult to see her children and grandchildren losing their culture and identity away from the reserve, Piche said.
“The frustrating part is not being able to carry on the way I was raised,” she said. “I feel like we’re just existing now, just getting by.
“I try to teach them to smudge, but you can only do so much here in the city.
“There’s got to be money there. I don’t understand. They built their own casino and their own hotel there. There’s got to be room for your own people there.”