More than four months after declaring a state of emergency First Nations in Manitoba say the current federal support offered fails to address numerous long-term issues in their communities.
The Keewatin Tribal Council — representing 11 communities spread throughout northern Manitoba — declared a state of emergency in March 2023.
Two member nations, God’s Lake First Nation and Shamattawa First Nation, each declared individual states of emergency before then.
Keewatin Grand Chief Walter Wastesicoot said the council decided to issue a regional state of emergency for all 11 members due “to system-wide failures in public safety, health and infrastructure.”
In an email, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said Keewatin received $300,000 in April to support “short, medium, and long-term strategies” to address the crises in their communities.
But Walter Wastesicoot says that’s “very little” help in comparison based on their actual needs and that “everything is still the same” as when the state of emergency was issued. He added he’s frustrated by the conditions that people have to deal with.
“They live in a constant state of poverty and Canada condones it,” he said.
In their statement, ISC said they will continue “to identify potential short-term solutions when a community is in need which can include any other essential services required.”
Substance abuse leading to violence and suicides, chiefs say
God’s Lake, 550 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg, was one of the first Keewatin communities to declare a state of emergency back in October 2022.
The main issue then — and now — is illegal substance use, which Chief Hubert Watt estimated affects 20 to 30 per cent the community.
Since October 2022, addiction issues in the community have continued and even people who are ready for treatment encounter major obstacles.
“There’s people that do want to stop, but they’re having a hard time doing it because of the limited number of resources that we have in the community,” Watt said.
“We need more centres in the north where people can go.”
About 200 kilometres northwest of God’s Lake, York Factory First Nation is dealing with the same issues.
Local Chief Darryl Wastesicoot said the substance issues in his community have led to a series of other problems, including violence and suicides.
“There’s nowhere that they can go [for help], so some of them just decide that they wanna leave this world,” he said.
The same issues are present in Fox Lake Cree Nation, 750 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Chief Morris Beardy said his community would like more regular visits from the RCMP to help them deal with the issues associated with substance abuse — problems that have worsened since the pandemic.
Housing and infrastructure issues
Even as addiction remains a risk to public health and safety, other urgent issues demand attention.
The local motel in God’s Lake has been turned into a homeless shelter and all 10 rooms are occupied by people with nowhere else to go, Watt said.
At the same time, Darryl Wastesicoot said some people in his community have made a home for themselves in an abandoned nursing station.
Both chiefs say there are many others who couch surf or who travel to Thompson and “end up on the streets,” according to Darryl Wastesicoot.
He also said poor residential plumbing and sewage related infrastructure in the community contributes to the housing problems as sewers back up into homes forcing people out.
The local water plant in York Factory does work, he said, but they’ve found E. coli in the past so “sometimes we just prefer to keep buying water just to be on the safe side.”
During a recent visit to Bunibonibee Cree Nation Walter Wastesicoot said he was told that only 100 of the 400 homes are connected to a water source — the other 300 depend on water deliveries.
“The critical infrastructure that is needed to support any home is not available,” Wastesicoot said.
In God’s Lake, Watt said two water trucks make deliveries to about half of the homes but the road quality is so poor, the trucks often break down leaving people for days without water.
There are other issues affecting the Keewatin communities, including issues with access — just two have all-weather road access — and the cost of flights. School resources, food costs and a lack of access to health care leave members “burned out” trying to deal with all the issues, Wyatt said.
Funds are stretched thin, Beardy said, forcing them to triage their crises.
Walter Wastesicoot said the 10,000 members of Keewatin have been in a “dire” situation for too long and more government programs and supports are needed.
“They didn’t meet the existing needs 40 years ago,” Wastesicoot said of the current programs and funds. “They won’t do it today.”
For now, ISC’s statement said the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) offers mental wellness funding to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Keewatin to provide mental wellness and crisis support as they deal with the state of emergency.