Residents on Red Pheasant First Nation’s are living without running water or heat and have raw sewage on the ground. Many of those residents are accusing the Chief and council of neglecting their duties to help. But according to Red Pheasant Chief Clint Wutunee, the poor housing conditions is due to a lack of government funding.
Several residents invited battlefordsNOW to the reserve, 30 minutes south of the Battlefords, for a tour of the First Nation. Many of the homes only recently received heat by way of new furnaces, but many homes still have plastic taped over broken windows, allowing the majority of heat to escape.
The situation is worse for others like Carmen Peyachew, who has been without running water for two months. The single mother is pregnant and has to travel to a well to supply her home with water.
“All I need is my water pump fixed or a new one,” Peyachew said. “My shower, toilet and washing machine work, but I have no water to use them. I can’t bathe my child or wash my dishes. I have to either walk or get a ride to fill up jugs at the well.”
According to Peyachew, she has called the band office multiple times to try and get the water pump fixed.
"I just want them to get the water going and fix up the houses a bit for us. I don’t think that’s too much to ask."
- Band member Carmen Peyachew
“I have called so many times; he (Chief Wutanee) is probably ignoring them now. We need to get the help that we need from council. I just want them to get the water going and fix up the houses a bit for us. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Peyachew added she saved up $500 to have a new pump installed. She asked council to reimburse her for the new pump, but was declined. So far, the water pump has still not been installed.
Peyachew works in North Battleford and though she said she could move, she doesn’t want to abandon her family home. Residents on the reserve can’t claim ownership of their homes, so if Peyachew were to leave the home, someone else could just move in and take it over. The band owns the homes on the reserve and residents are alloted a home based on need, or often, residents just move into empty homes.
“It would be easier for me to live closer to work, but this is my home,” Peyachew said. “I don’t want to live in the city. I have memories of my late mother and father here. I don’t want anyone to take my family house from me.”
Skylar Brown and Breanna Wahobin are a young couple living on Red Pheasant. They have two babies and another on the way. They also have no access to running water. Their toilet plumbing doesn’t lead to a sewer or septic system; instead whatever they flush just drops under the trailer and stays there.
Brown explained the sewage situation worsens in the summer. When they use the toliet, the waste collects under the trailer and creates a stench when exposed to the heat. Brown said the sewage issue isn’t suitable for anyone to be around, let alone infants.
Until weeks ago, they didn’t have heat either.
“We had to leave the oven on and open all the time just to get some warmth in here,” Brown said. “[Council] also wouldn’t help me with the skirting around the trailer. I had to keep hounding them until it got to minus 40C and I had to do it myself. I got most of it done before they finally sent someone to finish it.”
Down the road Carol Peyachew requires an oxygen tank to help her breathe. She said it is due to a lung condition from living 38 years in a house with a mould-infested basement. She also has a heart condition and diabetes, which she said means she must visit the hospital regularly.
Elsie Wutunee, a band member who guided battlefordsNOW through the tour of the reserve, made harsh accusations of the chief and council.
“There are some people here who get overlooked because they’re not related to [council],” Elsie said. “When the Chief and council are in, they’ll give their own people stuff, but not others. [Carol] has a small family. Big families get everything.”
According to Elsie, council is currently funding the renovation of the chief’s father’s home. Chief Wutunee confirmed the renovations were happening, but gave reasons why his father's home was being fixed.
“My father is 88 years old and he has health conditions,” Chief Wutunee said. “We try to make sure that our Elders are taken care of. When they are catching bronchitis and pneumonia, what are we supposed to do? Say ‘well that’s my family. We aren’t going to help them because it will look bad?’ We have to try to accommodate all of our Elders.” He added many of the complaints from residents were "political" in nature.
However, 83 year old resident Vera Meechance believes Wutunee’s “Elders-first” mentality is selective because she currenlty has a backed-up septic tank and a cistern she claims hasn’t been cleaned in a decade.
“I am 83 years old. They should treat me better than this,” Meechance said. “I had to put tape over a vent to keep mice from getting in. I hate mice. My walls have holes in them all. I have needed help from council for over a year and they haven’t done anything.”
When asked about some of the current living conditions on the reserve, Chief Wutunee said there are residents living in homes that are condemned and those homes shouldn’t be occupied at all.
“People get desperate sometimes. When people can’t find homes in the city, they come back here and will move into a condemned home. We will tell them the homes are condemned, but they say they’ll fix them anyways, and then they come back to us and ask to be reimbursed. A lot of times we try to accommodate them, but it is tough with the [lack of government] funding.”
The Chief said many times council’s hands are tied because the majority of funding they receive for housing from the federal government goes to insuring the homes.
"About half of our funding goes towards insurance, so right off the hop we are behind."
- Chief Clint Wutunee
“There is never enough funding nationally since they put a cap on it in the '80’s. About half of our funding goes towards insurance, so right off the hop we are behind. Then we have to have maintenance for the homes and employ people to service them. So we are operating on a real small budget.”
“We have done a lot of catch up this year. The people who are calling you may be the ones who are falling between the cracks,” Chief Wutunee said.
Chief Wutunee didn’t have exact numbers on how much was being spent on housing in Red Pheasant. He advised battlefordsNOW to contact Matt Holinaty, who he said handles the First Nation’s finances.
Holinaty blamed previous councils, along with lack of government funding, for the current housing crisis in Red Pheasant.
“The new Chief and council have been spending a lot more money than the previous leadership has on housing. We only get so much money from Indian Affairs. We have been working on just getting furnaces for all the homes. They (council) have taken the initiative and are slowly catching up. By the time we get to the middle of 2018 we will have a lot of those issues fixed.”
Holinaty added there are ways for residents to help council save money, so it could put more funding into housing. He suggested if residents hauled their own water, it would save the band upwards of $141,000.
Holinaty also said residents have to take more responsibility as council spends $47,726 annually on sewer backups and broken septic pumps.
“A lot of times it is because [the residents] flush things down the toilet that they’re not supposed to, causing it to be plugged and the pump to burn out.”
Holinaty said Red Pheasant has been approved to add four new homes this year by Indian Affairs and hopes to have approval for a total of 12 by the end of the year. Holinaty said Red Pheasant hasn’t added new homes in over 20 years.
Not everyone is convinced council is making the strides Holinaty said they were though. Michelle Good is a Red Pheasant Band member, and a lawyer currently living in B.C. She claims the new council is essentially the old one, as all the members are the same and she doesn’t trust anything they say.
“They are not a new council,” Good said. “There is a new Chief, but he has been on council for three or four terms now. It’s the same names, same people and the same lack of progress or initiative that we’ve seen there for decades.”
Good said she is involved in an appeal of the 2016 council election, which will be heard by the Federal Court in Saskatoon on April 3. Because the investigation is ongoing, Good wasn’t able to get into the details of the appeal.
As for the new homes slated to be constructed, Good was skeptical the reserve will ever actually see them built.
“People say anything, but there has been no report to the community that there is housing available. There’s been no priority list developed or assessment. The ongoing problem with the band council is that they fail abjectly to communicate with the community. They don’t tell us anything. They just carry on with their enormous salaries,” said Good.
According to Red Pheasant’s Schedule of Rumunerations for 2017, each of the nine councillors receives between $33,000 and $34,000 annually in base pay, plus an additional $33,000 to $34,000 in annual expenses. Chief Wutunee was on the books for $62,303 in base pay and an additional $61,100 for expenses, for a total of $123,408 last year.
Good claims each member receives the total of those expenses and doesn’t need to provide any proof of how it was spent. She added a good place to start finding more funds to fix housing would be in those salaries.
“That is the kind of salary people with PhD’s make. Professors at universities, executive officers of companies make that kind of money. It would be one thing if we were seeing results. He has been the Chief for two years now and nothing has been accomplished at Red Pheasant. It is just outrageous really.”
According to Good, the majority of residents are living on a pension or social assistance and since their housing is provided for residents on the reserve by the council, those residents don’t get additional social assistance allowance for housing.
"People are living on $250 a month. Can you imagine that? While the Chief is walking around with $123,000 in his pocket and that’s just that we know of."
- Lawyer Michelle Good
“People are living on $250 a month. Can you imagine that? While the Chief is walking around with $123,000 in his pocket and that’s just that we know of," said Good.
She believes the best solution is a forensic audit to account for every dollar that has gone in and out of the band. She added there should be an investigation into how Red Pheasant has just under $3.5 million in debt.
For now, Good said her main focus is helping the residents.
“If we walked into any senior's home in North Battlefords or Saskatoon and we saw Elders without running water... or heat; who would find that acceptable in any other situation? But somehow it is acceptable here and nobody steps in and I don’t understand why.”
When contacted for comment by battlefordsNOW, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s (INAC) reply, via email, recognized the need to tackle the housing issues in all the country’s First Nation reserves.
“Housing investments are just a first step and more needs to be done. The Government of Canada recognizes the urgent housing needs on reserve and the need for program reform. The Government is acting on its commitment to work with First Nations communities to develop an effective long-term approach to supporting the construction and maintenance of an adequate supply of housing on reserve as part of a broader National Housing Strategy.”
INAC’s email added the approach will increase First Nations control of housing and infrastructure.
“This will support the construction and maintenance of an adequate supply of housing on reserve, while permitting the construction and operation of additional housing options based on community needs,” said the INAC email.
While residents blame the Chief and council, and they in turn blame residents and lack of government funding, many residents are still forced to live without running water or heat, and in some cases many have no access to a bathroom in their own home. The sentiment from residents living in these situations is they need help and they don't care where it comes from.
On Twitter @realgreghiggins
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