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 substandard mould-infested housing has sparked a health crisis, according to a framework agreement signed on 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 can also 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 said 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 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont
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 "groundbreaking" 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.
This week, Nashie Oombash, 48, died in the community weeks after her doctor in Sioux Lookout said she was having "significant breathing problems when she is at home which is likely associated with the mould in her house." Autopsy results were not yet available.
The framework deal 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.
Last week, Cat Lake leaders expressed anger and frustration at the lack of action from both levels of government. They said they had been asking for help since 2006 to no avail. Poor health had become endemic, with an average of one person every three days having to be medevaced out for health care, they said.
They also warned they might have to consider evacuations to escape the mould — a warning repeated on Thursday.
O'Regan said he was "super sensitive" to criticism that Indigenous issues are quickly forgotten once media attention wanes. It's why he was pleased he was able to take an agreement rather than just promises to the meeting, he said.
"I'm much happier when I'm able to go up there with something in progress," O'Regan said.
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's Minister of Indigenous Affairs 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 said. "We continue to help them find solutions for their housing crisis."
O'Regan said he hoped the province would take what the federal government had now committed as a sign of good faith.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press