On-reserve housing conditions challenge First Nations’ fight against COVID-19

Topic(s): Emergency - COVID-19 Pandemic, Health & Wellness

People really need to learn and not be quick to judge First Nations reserves: First Nation councillor

Overcrowding and lack of adequate housing has made COVID-19 even more challenging in First Nation communities across B.C.

It’s a situation Tl’azt’en First Nation councillor Leslie Aslin is all too familiar with.

Housing conditions are poor in the Indigenous community, which is located in two semi-isolated reserves in the Stuart Lake area, north of Fort St. James.

For the nearly 450 residents living on-reserve, there are 130 homes, many of which were constructed over 20 years ago and weren’t built to last, Aslin said.

While the homes with three bedrooms or less may be inhabitable, they have bad windows, mold and far too little space for their many occupants.

“You do the math, and you figure out six to 14 people are living in one home, and that’s the situation we live with on our reserve,” he said.

“That’s why I think the vaccine was so important because we’re living in overcrowded homes, and there’s just so much high risk for everybody in the community.”

At Yunesit’in First Nation west of Williams Lake, housing is also an issue for their approximate 273 residents living on-reserve.

The Yunesit’in Government had set up the community’s library, youth centre and daycare, and two ATCO trailers as spaces for people to isolate themselves from other household members safely.

None of the buildings have a shower or bathtub. Only the daycare has a stove, but members have been keen on supporting each other where they can and have offered up plates of food.

“To isolate somebody when they’re living in a five-bedroom home with 17 people it’s a little difficult,” said band manager Dwayne Emmerson.

In B.C., First Nations need at least 50,000 homes to address homelessness and overcrowding, said BC Assembly First Nations Regional Chief Terry Tegee, who believes there is a lack of sustainable funding both provincially and federally.

“We’re pretty grateful for the $550 million from the provincial government for on- and off-reserve housing, but it’s over a 10-year period, and if we calculate that’s approximately 175 homes per year,” he said.

For the more than 200 First Nations in B.C., Teegee believes the funding is not nearly enough.

“We got to apply and if we don’t meet the criteria then we got to go back to square one and try to figure out what we’re going to do about our housing situation because it’s a very big issue in every First Nation community,” Aslin said.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of Aboriginal people in Canada is expected to continue growing, exceeding 2.5 million by 2026.

As Tl’azt’en dips into its financial resources to assist in renovations and potential housing projects for its on-reserve members, off-reserve members are kept from returning home.

Aslin said transportation and addictions also impacted controlling the spread of COVID-19.

“You got people criticizing First Nations people saying they get all this and that but it’s not really that good in the reserve when you’re living in overcrowded homes and managing poverty a lot, and there’s not much work, not much employment at all,” Aslin said.

“People really need to learn and not be quick to judge First Nations reserves.”