Sol Mamakwa's voice breaks a little when he recalls his trip to Cat Lake First Nation last month, describing the decrepit housing he saw in the remote community and the public health crisis it is causing among its people.
A two-month-old baby plays with his two toddler siblings in a mould-covered living room. In another dwelling, a baby sleeps in a basement next to a wooden stove that looked like it could catch fire at any minute.
A young mother concerned about her little girl, who covers her face every time she steps out of her home to conceal the skin disease on her face. She is bullied at school and cries often. She wrote a note that she didn't want to live anymore.
The Kiiwetinoong NDP MPP visited the fly-in northern Ontario Ojibwe community — home to 565 people at the time of the 2016 census and located several hundred kilometres north of Thunder Bay — a day after they declared a state of emergency, citing "profoundly poor conditions of housing" as the cause of a public health crisis.
Almost all of the community's housing is at risk of catching fire and fails to resist rapidly-spreading black mould, which has caused skin diseases, pneumonia and invasive bacterial diseases among community members.
"I didn't realise the extent of the issue until I actually visited the homes," Mamakwa said.
On Friday, the leadership of Cat Lake First Nation, along with Mamkwa and NDP MP Charles Angus, was at Queen's Park urging Premier Doug Ford and his government to step in where the federal government has failed and provide emergency housing, medical assistance and fire teams.
"Time is done. Waiting is done. No more can Cat Lake wait," Abigail Wesley, the deputy chief of the Cat Lake First Nation, told reporters.
Today, 100 children have been identified as seriously at-risk, and barring any action from provincial or federal governments, the community is creating a plan to evacuate themselves to their traditional territories or to cities.
“When is help coming?” Joyce Cook, a councillor from Cat Lake, said at the news conference, adding that there are no other housing options for the community. “I don’t know why it’s taking so long for our federal government to move.”
"People can die," Angus told reporters at Queen's Park. "People will die if nothing is done."
'Nobody bothered to show up in Cat Lake'
The state of emergency was declared on January 16, 2019. The community has been asking for help to improve housing in the community since 2006, Abigail Wesley, the deputy chief of the Cat Lake First Nation, told reporters, but "nothing has been done."
"The bare wires and the shifting and cracked foundations (of housing) have, in some cases caused houses to fall down a hill while families are living in them," Wesley told reporters, as she wiped away tears.
Wesley said that people in Cat Lake "get sick non-stop." Medical evacuations are conducted on an almost daily basis, with an average of one person every three days needing to be taken out of the community for medical assistance.
The community has just one nursing station, where treatment consists of ointment and inhalers, said Cook, the Cat Lake councillor.
"We formally call on Premier Doug Ford to meet with us and work with us to solve the housing and health crisis," she said.
In December, Indigenous Services Canada approved $200,000 for a comprehensive inspection of 110 of the 128 houses in the community. The declaration of emergency said a recent inspection report calls for the demolition of 87 houses due to the toxic mould issue.
Cat Lake housing crisis. There's no jurisdictionional ping pong here. Ontario is a signatory to Treaty 9. Cat Lake is part of Treaty 9. No more games @dougford @gregrickford #onpoli #cndpoli Housing is a #humanright #indigenous #wearepeopletoo pic.twitter.com/ZK2PDkK6DP— Sol Mamakwa MPP (@solmamakwa) February 8, 2019
But the community wants concrete action. The leadership asked the Province of Ontario to provide temporary emergency housing.
"If there was a state of emergency in Brampton or Waterloo, we know the premier and the prime minister would be there immediately, but nobody has bothered to show up in Cat Lake," Angus said. "It's got to stop."
'The worst case scenario is these kids dying'
Last week, the newly-appointed Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said the federal government will expedite the delivery of materials needed for immediate housing repairs, and that he will visit the community soon. He said repairs to the community's only nursing station are due to be completed by March 31.
In a statement, O'Regan said he will meet the community "at a further date," and that the government will keep "working directly" with Cat Lake's leadership. He did not provide further details on his planned visit or the extend of the federal government's engagement with the community. "The residents of this community must remain our priority," he said.
In Ontario, Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford's office said in a statement that it is the federal government's responsibility to help this community, and that they "should be ashamed that this situation has escalated to this point and should immediately act and provide support to this community in their desperate time of need.”
Rickford — previously a nurse who provided front line health care in First Nations communities, including Cat Lake — said he has reached out to the community leadership and was exploring the possibility of providing some immediate housing relief. He did not provide any further details on what the provincial government might offer in the way of assistance.
Mamakwa, who is the provincial NDP critic for Indigenous relations, has argued that the Ford government is obligated to help Cat Lake under Treaty 9 — a 1905 agreement Ontario signed, agreeing to protect First Nations rights to and on reserve lands, in exchange for land to develop and settle on.
"We’re doing nothing at the expense of these children’s lives and at the expense of their health," Mamakwa told National Observer. "The worst case scenario is these kids dying."