Members of a northern Anishininew family could spend Christmas in an old school bus after their trailer burned down last week in the remote, fly-in community of Garden Hill First Nation, Man., leaving 17 people with no home.
While community leaders have been trying to come up with a better alternative for the extended family now staying in the uninsulated bus in frigid temperatures, the First Nation 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg is in the midst of a housing shortage.
Ricky Knott — who lived in the trailer with his family of eight along with his brother’s family of eight and their father, Ron —was at work as a mechanic when the fire started and said he’s grateful everyone made it out safely.
“Some of the kids were just running to the bus with their shorts on … and the baby was wrapped in a blanket right away and taken to the bus,” Knott said.
Family members managed to grab a few things out of the trailer but almost everything they had — including most of their Christmas gifts — are gone.
Knott says his family members have to take turns sleeping in the bus, which is heated by a fire in an oil drum, because there isn’t enough room for everyone to sleep at the same time.
“The third night was too cold,” Knott said. “It was like walking into a walk-in freezer, where there is tin all over and outside is really cold and you can feel that tin freezing cold inside.”
He said he has kept a fire going to try to warm the bus, though he knows doing so is not safe.
Knott’s brother, has managed to find a different temporary place to live, but both families are essentially homeless in their First Nation.
You know we’re in a rich country called Canada, and to see these families living like this in overcrowded houses is a very sad thing to see in my community.– Charles Knott, chief of Garden Hill First Nation
“I’m very worried,” Knott said.
Garden Hill First Nation Chief Charles Knott, who is Ricky Knott’s uncle, said community leaders are trying to find the displaced families other places to live, but says his community is in a housing crisis and requires hundreds of new homes to start meeting the needs of people who live there.
“It’s very sad to see what our community is going through,” the chief said. “You know we’re in a rich country called Canada, and to see these families living like this in overcrowded houses is a very sad thing to see in my community.”
Knott said most of the daily calls he receives as chief have to do with a housing issue.
Chief Knott said the crisis is putting his people’s lives in danger and that the government needs to provide resources immediately to address the housing needs.
NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski includes Garden Hill, said she agrees.
“It is not acceptable that in a country as wealthy as Canada that Third World living conditions like this still persist,” Ashton said. “We need to see the federal government address this right away.”
To keep costs down for housing material and other supplies, products would have be delivered using the winter road that connects the community with urban centres for a few weeks of the year during the winter season.
In an email response, the federal government acknowledged the longstanding housing gaps that exist in First Nations, and says it has made significant investments on the matter but that much more is needed.
In the meantime, relatives of the Knott families are doing what they can to help. They have launched an online fundraiser on the website GoFundMe, which had raised about $1,000 for the Garden Hill family as of Wednesday night.