Manitoba reserve illustrates First Nations challenges
Published Monday, January 23, 2012 10:15PM EST
Sitting amidst the dense thicket of Manitoba's boreal forest, the Wasagamack reserve illustrates some of the hardships faced by First Nations people across Canada.
About 1,800 Ojibway-Cree people live on the reserve, a place where running water is a luxury and overcrowded homes are the norm.
But, according to First Nations chiefs, Wasagamack is just a microcosm of the challenges aboriginal communities across Canada share.
Issues such as economic development and education will be on the agenda when politicians and aboriginal leaders meet at the First Nations summit this Tuesday.
While lawmakers talk policy at the one-day session in Ottawa, many families in Wasagamack will be trekking through snow, gathering wood to heat their homes.
By late January, it already feels like – 39 C on the reserve, which is spread out over a series of islands -- accessible only by ice in the winter and water in the summer.
There is no airport in Wasagamack, which is about 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Bone-chilling temperatures have made it difficult for residents to draw water from the now-icy lake. Complicating matters, only a quarter of the community's 250 homes have running water.
The challenges are reminiscent of those faced in the northern Ontario First Nation of Attawapiskat, which declared a state of emergency late last fall due a housing crisis.
For weeks, photos of poverty and overcrowding in Attawapiskat were splashed across front pages as federal politicians argued over who should foot the blame.
While it was and continues to be a messy situation, Wasagamack chief Alex McDougall said the attention paid to Attawapiskat helped spur change in his own community.
Federal officials have promised new water and sewage trucks for Wasagamack and work will begin to supply most of the community with water in 2013.
It's a modest but promising start for a community that still grapples with a growing population of homeless and unemployed residents.
"There is a backlog of approximately 200 homes that we need to house all the families and homeless people," said McDougall.
Most who live in Wasagamack subsist on government handouts, which many say barely covers the cost of groceries. One box of cereal costs about $13 on the isolated reserve, while residents say milk ranges from $14 to $16.
Come Tuesday, First Nations chiefs say they want to negotiate a timeline that would see concrete improvements in Canada's aboriginal communities. Some hope real changes can be made within the year.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, has downplayed the summit's possible outcomes. He's said that the meet won't be a "big bang" event with showy announcements or massive funding boosts.
Back in Wasagamack, Alvina Manoakeesick shares a modest bungalow with 11 others.
Since bodies outnumber beds, she sleeps in the laundry room with her husband and children. In the absence of plumbing, the family uses a slop pail as a toilet.
The Assembly of First Nations estimates as many as 73 per cent of homes on reserves are considered substandard, another issue Ottawa hopes to tackle this week.
About 150 chiefs are expected to attend Tuesday's conference, but others can join via the Internet.
With a report from CTV National News's Jill Macyshon