When news of the horrific housing situation in the northern Ontario aboriginal settlement of Attawapiskat first broke last fall, many Canadians were confused with how conditions in the community could have become so bad. Dropping temperatures and health and safety concerns due to inadequate housing was what prompted a state of emergency to be declared. Many residents were living in tents, trailers and temporary shelters that lacked running water and electricity, and some were even living in buildings right next to the site of a raw sewage spill from 2009 that was never adequately cleaned.
Those conditions created a public outcry and political debate over what should be done for the residents and how the $90 million that the community has received in federal funding since 2006 was spent.
For St. Jacobs’ Mark Bauman, the feelings surrounding the conditions at Attawapiskat are much more visceral.
“I was ashamed to be a Canadian,” Bauman said Monday, a little more than a week after the contractor and Woolwich Township councillor returned from a two-week trip to the isolated Aboriginal community as part of a Mennonite Central Committee Ontario project called Building Hope.Bauman, who has more than 35 years of construction experience, wanted to donate his time and talents to the community after an announcement was made at his St. Jacobs Mennonite Church by the MCCO that they were looking for volunteers for the purpose of helping to rebuild and renovate some of the dilapidated homes in Attawapiskat, as well as learn more about the challenges that affect the people of that community.
He submitted his application and was readily accepted onto the team.
Since 1981 MCCO has received invitations from the community to improve the quality of life for the approximately 2,000 people that now live there.
There are currently 122 families living in condemned housing that was built in the 1970s and has not been properly maintained, and there are 19 families living in makeshift tents and shacks without electricity, running water, or plumbing. The MCCO estimates that some 250 new homes are needed to alleviate the over-crowding ad sub-standard housing in the Mushkegowuk Cree community.
Bauman arrived at the MCCO north office in Timmins on Mar. 19 and after a couple days of orientation, the group of three volunteers travelled 500 km north to the community. He said that from the moment they arrived he felt welcomed by the people that call Attawapiskat home.
“We were strangers, we were a minority definitely in their community, and they would stop and talk to us; you wonder if we would do the same here, stop and talk to a minority that was working in our community,” Bauman said.
Attawapiskat is very similar to towns in southern Ontario, Bauman explained. They have a hospital, an airport, an arena and a community centre. There is an elementary and a high school, a number of churches, coffee shops, gas stations, a fire department and government offices.
Yet the community is so remote that it is only accessible by air year-round. It is accessible by water in the summer as it sits on the edge of a river that is one of the main drainage rivers of James Bay. It was historically a seasonal camp site that had been visited for centuries by aboriginal ancestors, and families traditionally left the location during the winter.
That all changed in the 1960s and ’70s when the temporary dwellings gave way to more permanent buildings. Yet those buildings have not been properly maintained, leading to the problems seen today.
While in the community, Bauman worked on about three separate houses to try to improve the standard of living for those families. Most of the work was focused on removing wet wallboard or floorboards, and any insulation that was wet or moldy. He replaced the floors and the ceilings in several bathrooms, as well as the front entry on another home.
Bauman admitted the work he could do was limited mainly by the lack of supplies. Given the isolated nature of Attawapiskat, supplies must be transported in via an ice road from the south, but because of the warmer temperatures this spring the road broke up nearly six weeks early, which meant many supplies failed to make it to the community this year.
“You don’t go next door to Fairway Lumber; you have to plan six months ahead,” he explained.
As a result Bauman said that he had to be much more frugal with his demolition jobs than he would be working at his job with Menno S. Martin Contracting, located in his hometown.
“We would tackle one room in a house, or part of a room, and get that done and try and finish everything up in one day,” he said, “whereas around here I would just gut the whole room.”
The actual construction process was similar to his experiences working in more southern climes, but with one major exception: in Attawapiskat the frost can reach depths of up to 10 feet, compared to about four feet here, and there is even permafrost in some areas, meaning a lot more care was required when installing underground water pipes to prevent them from bursting.
“Their main waterlines are 18-feet below ground,” Bauman said, adding they placed styrofoam around the pipes as well to insulate them from the cold, and that a second piece of pipe surrounded the original pipe to prevent frost from tugging the joints apart.
While he may not have accomplished as much work as he wanted to before returning home on Apr. 5, Bauman said that the trip really opened his eyes to the challenges that face the First Nation’s people of Canada.
“I’ve learned to take a second look. When people say ‘they should just move’ well, no, they shouldn’t just move,” he said, noting the fact that they were living on that land centuries before Europeans ever set foot in North America.
“It really bothers me when people say ‘here’s the solution.’ First Nations people are rightly suspect of ‘White Man’ solutions.”
Bauman believes that a movement towards the Habitat for Humanity model of volunteers building new homes hand-in-hand alongside the people who will actually be living in those homes could be adopted for future projects like this, and he is acting as a construction liaison for MCCO to determine what needs to be in place before any similar projects next year.
“I’ve laid out what has to happen each month for the next year in order to make a new house or a renovation, and it would be the chief and council that would need to identify where the need is the greatest and we’ll work with that.
“Obviously this isn’t the whole solution, building one house, but it’s a way of building a bridge and saying that we here in the south understand and sympathize with their plight.”