Indigenous people in search of essentials

The people of Kitcisakik never had running water or electricity in their homes. Over time, several elected officials and federal candidates came to the community with promises of bettering their lot. But even today they have to fetch their water from the boiler and shower in the toilet block. And they still have no power. In 2021.

“Community members have gotten used to living in these conditions, but they are demanding a better quality of life,” laments Régis Penosway, leader of the Kitcisakik community in La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve in Abitibi.

“Especially in the winter season it’s difficult,” he explains. We come out of the shower with wet hair and have to go home in the cold. »

Véronique Papatie, she sometimes chooses to wash her children by hand in a large basin. “We live like we used to, like our grandparents,” laments the mother of five. It’s improving in terms of infrastructure, with the school and the CPE, but we need showers in the house, that’s the basis! she calls.

From autumn onwards, the residents only heat with wood, as there is no electric heating. “Like Quebecers’ chalets,” quips Chef Penosway.

In the background we hear a mechanical hum. “About 80% of the members have their own generator,” explains the chef. If you don’t have one, you can’t even have a fridge. »

Without status

During this campaign, the main parties made many promises and several candidates went to Kitcisakik. The problem is that this community has no official status, having never accepted the terms of any treaty with Ottawa. Because of this, Kitcisakik is not among the communities that Justin Trudeau has pledged to provide access to potable water.

“The Kitcisakik community does not have reserve status, it is on provincially administered land,” explains Carine Midy of Indigenous Services Canada. However, the federal government maintains investments there to ensure the health and safety of the community. »

Geotechnical investigations had shown that it was impossible to supply households with drinking water due to the nature of the soil. “The community is served by a drinking water well and a treatment unit that distributes the treated water to the buildings,” she explains.

Discussions have been going on for more than fifteen years with the various governments about the creation of a village that would allow all services to be offered on the current site or elsewhere on the territory. But the community is divided. “The word ‘reserve’ scares them,” explains the chef.

In the meantime, the residents of Kitcisakik are organizing themselves as best they can without harboring too many illusions about the promises made by the politicians. “Our members are frustrated, disillusioned. We want a village, regardless of the location, regardless of the cost, says Régis Penosway. We would like water and electricity for yesterday. »

“Housing is the priority”

In the neighboring community of Lac-Simon, all houses are supplied with water and electricity. “We have come a long way with the federal government,” says head Adrienne Jérôme in her newly renovated office. At the time of [Stephen] Harper was hell, he cut everywhere. But there were many improvements with the Trudeau administration, especially in education. »

“Housing is the priority,” she says. We have 350 apartments for 2,300 people, an average of 6.5 people per apartment. In summer people live everywhere, in shed, in the woods or on the baseball field. But winter is more difficult. People are really crowded into houses. »

Overcrowding leads to social problems, observes Lucien Wabanonik from the Lac Simon Bandrat. “Children have trouble doing their homework. Parents find it difficult to be effective at work because they haven’t had a good night’s sleep. As soon as someone coughs, everyone gets sick. Not to mention the mold and overconsumption problems…”

The federal government only funds a third of the cost of two houses a year when 300 are needed.

“Some have been waiting for a house for more than ten years. Every year when we announce the choice of accommodation, people are in despair,” laments the chef.

The situation is so critical that a slum is emerging in a forest near the village. Temporary camps made of canvas, wood and plywood are erected in an anarchic manner. “It’s worthy of the Third World,” regrets council member Lucien Wabanonik.

Hike through Val d’Or

All of these problems are leading many Aboriginal people to settle in Val-d’Or in hopes of a better life that they don’t always find in this mining town that many call ‘Sin City’. Charlie Cookish, a Cree from Chisasibi, hoped to find an apartment there. But for 18 months he has been wandering the streets of Val-d’Or. Her friend Lorianne Kitchen, 52, from Waswanipi can’t find an affordable apartment either. To survive, they sleep and eat at La Piaule, a community housing organization for the homeless.

“The federal government has a duty to provide services to Aboriginal people in urban areas. However, when we look at voting platforms, we never talk about Aboriginal people in urban areas. The urban issue is invisible, even if more than 50% of them live in cities,” laments Édith Cloutier, Executive Director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre.

Friendship Centers are calling for better funding to provide adapted and culturally safe services to their urban Aboriginal members.

Aboriginal people make up only 4% of the population and vote little, which explains why the issues were not well represented in previous election campaigns. But with the deep crises of recent years, Canadians are demanding accountability, argues Edith Cloutier. “Now politicians answer to 100% of Canadians who consult the government on Aboriginal issues, not 4% of the population,” she says.

Two indigenous candidates

There is a record number of Native American candidates in this campaign. In Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, a rider long represented by New Democrat Romeo Saganash, two indigenous women are in the running.

Pikogan’s Liberal candidate Lise Kistabish and Chisasibi’s NDP candidate Pauline Lameboy are both trying to oust Bloc Québécois MP Sylvie Bérubé.

“Housing is the priority,” says Lise Kistabish. There are also environmental issues, climate change and access to drinking water. »

For her part, Pauline Lameboy speaks of a reconciliation that goes beyond words. “We will not be able to achieve reconciliation unless we accept that racism exists on the territory,” she argues. We are reconciled and then we can work hand in hand for economic development. »

The candidates are proud of the leadership of Aboriginal women, as does Édith Cloutier of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre: “Aboriginal women are at the heart of change. »

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