Multiple generations of one Tataskweyak Cree Nation family were among a group of walkers who arrived from the Northern Manitoba community in Thompson on July 6 near the beginning of a journey – by foot – to Winnipeg, which they hope will raise awareness of the housing crisis on their First Nation as well as pledges that will go toward the construction of new homes.
"We started off in Split Lake on Tuesday morning, 11 o'clock, we did a prayer. members from chief and council and the housing authority attended that. and then they started walking - Roma [Spence], Greta [Clipping] and Sarah [Garson] - three of them started," said Lavern Spence, the spokesman for the group and also the husband of Roma. "Others have joined along the way and we are expecting more people to join us, a couple more from Nelson House and we'll see how it progresses as the public becomes more aware this is happening."
Several youth were also among the walkers who arrived in Thompson, including Christina Garson, Justice Spence, Jaylin Spence and Ginny Spence
In a meeting with Thompson MLA Steve Ashton, Churchill NDP MP Niki Ashton, Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Irvin Sinclair and representatives of other organizations at Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's office in Thompson, Lavern Spence outlined the housing situation in Tataskweyak Cree Nation, noting that there only 322 homes for a population of approximately 2,800 people, about half the number that are needed.
"You divide that, how many per house, how many in a house?" he said. "Sometimes we have two or three families living in a home. They take shifts to sleep. Families are big enough, they're taking shifts. Some will sleep during the night, they're all rested they get up and go and the next people that stayed up all night will go to bed. That's the reality. These are things that we're trying to find solutions for."
One of the walkers, Roma Spence, said the journey was already taking a toll on her body.
"That first day was really hard," she said. "Our feet were getting blistered. Right now I need medical attention because my feet are infected. Why am I going through this? For my people because I care for them. There's hardly any resources in Spit Lake."
In addition to creating awareness, the walkers hoped to collect donations and pledges that would be used to build 10 new houses at Tataskweyak Cree Nation using local contractors and labour.
"We're asking for help," said Roma Spence. "We need new homes."
Another participant, Greta Clipping, said her community couldn't rely on the chief and council to solve the housing crisis.
"I'm known as a, I can say bad, the bad one, mainly because I was against the dam because I knew that in the future our land was going to be destroyed, our land and water," she said. "Our chief [Duke Beardy] lives here [in Thompson] in comfort while his people are over there suffering. He is never around when we need him. That's not what I call a chief. I'm sorry to say but he's a businessman and he calls himself a chief."
Clipping also said band members were not informed about decisions that affect their lives.
"Even the elders who sit around like this in Winnipeg, they don't even want to acknowledge their people's voices," she said. "I'm sorry to say that but it's true. They spend $20,000 a week when they go to Winnipeg. That could be one two-bedroom house right there. They don't even bring anything back, 'Ok, come here people, this is what was going on. This is what we've gone to talk about.' Not once. That's not how you treat people. Being mistreated, it's not something you do to your people."
Alberteen Spence, Lavern's sister, who isn't one of the walkers but has taken part in other other actions, including a protest outside the TCN band office in May, and a blockade of the road to the Keeyask Dam site that began on Tuesday evening, said that while she had mixed feelings about the walk, the fact that TCN has a housing crisis couldn't be denied.
"The living condition and the standards are pretty low," she said. "They're usually called fourth world conditions because we live in a country that is one of the most affluent countries in the word and yet these conditions are right here in Canada with the economy that's doing much better than most countries in the world."
Alberteen Spence also questioned what Manitoba Hydro's dam projects in the area had done for TCN.
"We have the resources surrounding us – trees, rocks, we have all kinds – we're one of the richest places on the planet with resources in our homeland and somehow we're not able to make shelters," she said. "We pay high [Hydro] rates and it's putting our community into a deficit. Most people in Split Lake are on social assistance – 80 per cent – and they pay Hydro rates and it's pushing our programs into deficit. There's something wrong here for sure. We live in a very economically advantaged place in Manitoba being in between and amidst all these Hydro development dams. We've been seeing in the news where there's been millions spent and yet our community is underdeveloped. It has no new housing in three years and the housing we had four years ago, we bought trailers. Trailers are not housing. It's like living in cardboard boxes in sub-arctic weather."
A frequent visitor to Split Lake during and between election campaigns over the years, Steve Ashton said he'd witnessed the community's inadequate housing firsthand.
"I've visited, I think, every home many times and I want to add my words to what I have seen which is not only the housing shortage but housing overcrowding and the very difficult situations many people face," said the Thompson MLA. "I've seen the trailers. I've seen the houses there in bad need of repair. I've seen the crowding and I've seen the waiting lists. And it's a story that is very much the story of many other communities as well. I am a witness to what you have said. I don't' live it, but I have seen it and that's one of the reasons I do visit door-to-door and visit every home is because unless you do that you have no sense."
Niki Ashton, whose federal riding of Churchill includes Split Lake, said the walkers' message about the housing situation needed to be brought to the attention of the federal government.
"Those are stories that I'm going to be bringing back to Ottawa," she said. "They're shocking. They're not the stories that we expect to hear and they're stories that show how bad things are. As much as Winnipeg is the capital of our province, the reality is that the federal government has been the most negligent when it comes to First Nations. They've dropped the ball decade after decade and I would say that in the last 15 years things have gone from bad to worse. They all talk about how there's immense power in there being so many young people in aboriginal communities and the key to the future is supporting our youth. Housing is one of the most important ways you can do that."
The walkers had earlier met with a representative from the City of Thompson upon their arrival at the city's northern edge.
KTC Grand Chief Sinclair said the situation the Split Lake walkers were describing was one he had seen before.
"My uncle, right next door to me, had 19 people living in his house and it was frustrating because there was no housing and I couldn't give him a house because he was my uncle," he said, referring to his time as chief of Bunibonibee Cree Nation at Oxford House. "It's always like that in every community."
He also expressed confidence that the walkers from Split Lake would reach their destination.
"I got to know them when we did the search for the missing people here in Thompson and they are very devoted and they're relentless in their goals and that's why I can guarantee you they're going to do this," said Sinclair. "Split Lake is very politically active and I applaud them for living that way and, you know, bringing out these issues that are often not heard out in the general public."
Closing comments were made by the Rev. Martha Spence, the mother of Lavern.
"There's a lot of young people that are always needing a home," she said. "There's a lot of single mothers also who need homes like my grandgirls and other young girls. They don't have homes. They're always crowding into their parents' home because where else can they stay? There's no other housing there. I cry and I pray for them. And I cry when I think about my community. It could be better. For all the things that we're surrounded and the negotiations that they did with Manitoba Hydro. They're destroying our area. They're destroying our water, land, everything else. They're getting those things from our community, they're getting rich off it. If only someone would speak for us."