Manitoba First Nation proposes class action against Ottawa for housing conditions

WINNIPEG — The chief of a remote First Nation in northern Manitoba is proposing a national class-action lawsuit against the federal government for failing to address the housing crisis on reserves.

Chief Elvin Flett, of St. Theresa Point First Nation, is seeking $5 billion in compensation, as well as an order that the federal government comply with its obligation to provide adequate housing on First Nations.

“Most homes on reserve are falling apart and many are infested with mould and other toxins. Our lack of housing on reserve forces generation after generation to cramp together under the same roof,” Flett told reporters Monday.

“This is about broken promises, including the treaties, and the honour of the Crown to act and the many promises made to our people.”

Flett, on behalf of himself and his community, and his legal team at the Toronto-based firm McCarthy Tetrault LLP filed a statement of claim in Federal Court Monday. The claim names the attorney general of Canada as the defendant.

The statement of claim alleges Canada has, “deliberately underfunded housing on reserves,” while simultaneously isolating First Nations by imposing restrictions on their ability to provide housing for themselves.

“The resulting catastrophe for First Nations and their members was not only predictable, it was the defendant’s intended result,” the statement claims.

An emailed statement from Indigenous Services Canada said it was aware of Monday’s news conference announcing the proposed lawsuit. It said it would continue to work with all First Nation communities, including St. Theresa Point First Nation, to address and improve on-reserve housing conditions.

“The Government of Canada is committed to doing more to ensure that every First Nations community has safe and adequate housing,” the statement said.

St. Theresa Point is one of four First Nations that make up the Island Lake region in northeastern Manitoba. The community of 5,200 people is accessible by plane or ice road for six weeks out of the year.

About 467 families in the community need homes, said Flett.

There are approximately 646 houses in St. Theresa Point with 25 per cent condemnable due to severe decay and rotting, Flett added. Others require major repairs averaging in cost from $55,000 to $86,000.

The community received federal funding last year for 20 two-bedroom units.

“It’s barely a dent in what (St. Theresa Point) needs. It doesn’t keep up with the decay in their house and let alone the growth of their population,” said Michael Rosenberg, counsel for the community. “The First Nation, like so many others across the country, falls farther and farther behind.”

Flett said some of his community’s members, and others from First Nations across the country, are living in unimaginable conditions that aren’t seen elsewhere.

It’s not uncommon for families of 12 to live under one roof. In one instance in St. Theresa Point, 32 people are living in a four-bedroom home. Leaders have heard of members sleeping in shifts, while other families resort to more “precarious housing” including living out of school buses, shacks, tents and makeshift cabins.

The state of housing on First Nations has mental and physical health repercussions, said Flett. Members live with ailments that leaders say are linked to toxins in the home while overcrowding affects youth and teens who often don’t have access to personal space.

Indigenous Services Canada’s statement said that since April 2016, the federal department has invested $3.93 billion for First Nations housing, which it said has supported 3,766 housing projects in 611 First Nations communities.

It said that as a result, nearly 15,000 more homes on reserve have been constructed or are in progress.

It also noted a joint working group made up of the Assembly of First Nations, Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation is developing a 10-year national First Nations housing and related infrastructure strategy.

Grand Chief Cathy Merrick, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said housing on First Nations has been a “stain on the conscience of (communities) for far too long.”

“First Nations people in Manitoba and across Canada have endured overcrowded, dilapidating and substandard housing, undermining their health and their well-being.”

Rosenberg said the proposed compensation would address inadequate housing in communities and those who have been injured by their living conditions.

“It’s important to recognize that no one class action will solve all the problems of housing,” he added.

The proposed class action is directed toward the most extreme housing emergencies in First Nations. Rosenberg said communities where at least half of the population resides in homes with a shortfall of two or more bedrooms and are in need of major repairs may be eligible to sign on.

The community and Flett are inviting other First Nations to join in the lawsuit.

“Together we must demand the housing that we deserve ? together we can create a safer and healthier future for First Nations across Canada.”

A judge must certify the class action before it can proceed.

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