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Addressing housing crisis that worsened COVID-19 for First Nations should be one of federal government’s priorities, MP says

Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton believes her party can hold greater sway in Parliament than its 25 seats would normally allow due to Liberals’ minority status.
niki ashton churchill keewatinook aski ndp mp september 2021
Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton, seen here during the federal election campaign in September, says fighting for more and better housing in Indigenous and northern communities is going to be one of her priorities during Canada’s 44th Parliament, which began with the throne speech Nov. 23.

Canada’s 44th Parliament opened with the throne speech by the governor-general Nov. 23 and Northern Manitoba’s MP says her party is focused on ensuring that the words in the speech translate into concrete action to improve the lives of her constituents and all Canadians.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon delivered the speech, which focused on economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as action on climate change, Indigenous reconciliation and rebuilding Canada’s health care system, including improvements to the treatment of mental health and addictions.

In a recent interview with the Thompson Citizen, Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton, who has represented the region since 2008, said addressing the housing crisis and drinking water issues on First Nations need to be part of that reconciliation.

Ashton, who will serve as the NDP’s deputy critic for Indigenous services and northern affairs, along with other critic duties, recently wrote letters to new Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu about specific complaints she had received from residents in her riding touching on both water and housing.

A York Factory First Nation councillor reached out to the MP concerning a water treatment plant pump that keeps freezing, saying that the department advised insulating it with straw bales to keep it warm.

“These types of temporary solutions are unfortunately necessary, but it only highlights your government’s failures,” the MP wrote.

Another complaint from a Berens River resident whose house has broken windows, freezing pipes, a faulty sewage system and lack of heat are all too common throughout the riding’s many First Nations according to the MP.

“It is, without a doubt, a consistent and shameful failure by your government and governments before it,” Ashton said.

The poor housing conditions that played a role in making First Nations, and particularly remote ones like many in Northern Manitoba, more vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t new, Ashton said, and failing to alleviate overcrowding will leave residents at greater risk in future pandemics as well.

“We can’t have rebuilding out of COVID unless that also includes housing,” she said, noting that waiting lists are growing, older homes are needing more frequent repairs or becoming uninhabitable. “There’s no community in our region I visited or spoke to during the election that said the situation in terms of housing had gotten better. If anything, everywhere that it was raised it was because things are getting worse. It’s not status quo. It’s just getting worse.”

Given that the federal government identified worthy projects worth nearly double the $2.5 billion it allocated for rapid housing initiatives in the six months after it launched that program, Ashton says there should probably be a category just for Indigenous and northern communities, which often face greater barriers than southern urban centres – such as remoteness and cost of materials and labour – when it comes to developing housing

“Overcrowded housing exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis for First Nations and for Indigenous and northern communities,” she said. “We need to see action from the federal government on housing for First Nations and northern communities and that’s going to be a priority for me going forward in this Parliament. The health and safety ramifications of inadequate housing are extensive – everything from fire safety to medical conditions to, frankly, mental health.”

More action on climate change in general is needed, Ashton said, but that action should also include supporting communities like Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids, which have been evacuated multiple times over the past few years, to deal with effects like more frequent and larger forest fires that threaten their existence.

Overall, the Northern Manitoba MP says, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government should concentrate on transforming rhetoric to reality.

“Throughout the Liberal government’s mandate, we’ve heard a number of strong commitments,” Ashton wrote to Hajdu. “I hope you are the minister that finally converts those pretty words into meaningful action.”

Although it may seem like a tall task for the NDP, which has only 25 seats in the House of Commons – the second fewest of the five parties who had members elected in the Sept. 20 election – to make life better for Canadians, Ashton says her party did it during the pandemic and still has that ability.

“We have an opportunity in a minority government to effect change. The NDP was instrumental in the previous minority government in delivering for Canadians during the crisis. We had that opportunity based on our position,” she says. “Our balance of power is there once again. We’ve been very clear that what we’re going to be pushing for is concrete action. We learned from COVID-19 the gaps that exist and how these are gaps that rendered people sick and more vulnerable, that rendered our communities more vulnerable, so lot’s learn those lessons and commit to concrete actions that will lift our communities up.”