Fixing the running-water crisis in Island Lake is exacerbating another on-reserve housing problem -- overcrowding.
Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall and his councillors said they are delighted more homes in their remote community now have modern plumbing but say some of the funding for the retrofits has been diverted from other much-needed housing projects.
Wasagamack, one of four bands in the Island Lake region of northeastern Manitoba, will see proper toilets and taps installed in another 44 homes during the next few months, replacing slop pails, latrines and daily trips to the communal tap for clean drinking water.
Last year, the four bands had 100 homes retrofitted with modern plumbing, which often included significant renovations to houses never built to accommodate proper bathrooms in the first place. Another 218 homes are getting indoor toilets and running water now and in the next few months.
That brings the number of retrofitted homes to 318, about one-third of the total need first identified three years ago in a series of stories in the Winnipeg Free Press. If Ottawa keeps up its current pace, bringing taps and toilets to 100 or 200 homes a year, the crisis could be solved in five years.
But there's a downside.
As part of Ottawa's plan, bands such as Wasgamack have had to chip in roughly half their "band-based funding" -- the annual capital grant each reserve normally spends on building and repair projects it chooses.
Wasagamack gets about $950,000 a year, and from that it typically tries to build or repair a handful of houses because a housing shortage often forces a dozen or more people to squeeze into one ramshackle trailer.
Now, half the band's $950,000 pot is earmarked for water and sewer retrofits, in addition to the $7 million Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is spending this year across the four bands. That means progress the band might have made building new houses has stalled, aggravating the overcrowding, said McDougall.
"That is one of the biggest challenges we have -- the housing issue, overcrowding, trying to create healthier living conditions," he said.
Next year, Wasagamack hopes to get funding to retrofit several dozen more houses with water and toilet services. After that, it will be tough to find homes that can be retrofitted. About a quarter of the houses on reserve are in such bad shape they're not worth repairing or renovating. Some have even been condemned but families continue to live in them since there are no other options.
The band estimates it needs another 100 houses.
So far, Ottawa has spent about $22 million in Island Lake trying to solve the running-water crisis. That includes installing water and sewer tanks in hundreds of houses and buying several new water and sewer trucks for each community, along with new garages for the trucks.
"We recognize there is more work to be done but the department has made significant investments, and working with the First Nations we have made tangible progress in addressing the water and wastewater issues facing these communities," said AANDC in a statement.