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A welcome sign for Sioux Lookout, Ont., on April 23, 2018.

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

In a country like Canada, if you spend the night outside with temperatures dipping to -40C, you die. And in Sioux Lookout, Ont., 13 people without homes perished on the streets between the start of 2017 and the first quarter of 2018, according to the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB).

Thirteen tragic deaths represents 1.6 per 1,000 of the population at the time. To put it in perspective, that percentage applied to the Greater Toronto Area would mean more than 9,400 deaths, says Henry Wall, the KDSB’s chief administrative officer. And his estimates don’t even figure in the larger cities of Kenora or Dryden.

This is what a First Nations housing crisis looks like. And these numbers, which seem small but mean so much more, has allowed inaction to fester into unnecessary deaths that are too often callously overlooked.

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Focusing on the following two lonely souls from Mr. Wall’s list of 13 should fill you with woe and anger, and make you question humanity – not to mention Canada’s colonial social structures that have allowed Indigenous People to be constantly treated as lesser. Both have no names, no identity, no ages. One is male, one is female. They are presumed “to be from Northern communities.”

It is not uncommon that when no one claims the lost, the Kenora District steps in, covers associated costs, and assists with finding burial places – that is, unmarked graves.

“No one was there to advise what the right thing to do was. But would that have been in line with the cultural teachings?” Mr. Wall asked. “I can’t imagine being any more alone. Even after the fact.”

There is a direct line from the housing crisis in First Nations communities to what you see on city streets. Subpar homes house multiple generations, lack proper heat or are full of mold, without running water or working toilets. People sleep in shifts because there aren’t enough beds.

Deaths on the streets happen when hundreds wait for housing in First Nations communities already lacking in foundational infrastructure – stable roads or hydro, or functioning sewage pipes. You can’t have a clinic or school without water.

In Eabametoong First Nation, about 400 km north of Thunder Bay – a community of 2,700, 1,500 of whom are living off-reserve, with many waiting for housing – there are people without homes living in tents in bitter temperatures. They use barrels for heating, their blue tarp walls providing nearly no insulation against the biting wind.

“If you are going to build 50 homes in five years in Eabamentoog you couldn’t do it, because the infrastructure isn’t there, the hydro, water and the sewer system isn’t there,” says Ontario MPP Sol Mamakwa, whose northern riding of Kiiwetinoong includes Eabametoong. “You wouldn’t be able to do it because of countless infrastructure issues. Yet the community needs 200 homes now.”

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So if you are in search of any of these basic standards of living anyone else in Canada enjoys, you effectively have to leave your community. In some cases, that means you wind up on the streets of bigger cities or towns – of Thunder Bay, Kenora, even small Sioux Lookout.

Mr. Wall told me what else he knew about the 13 who died in Sioux Lookout.

One man, 41, was found hypothermic, which caused further trauma and a stroke. One woman was in her 20s – officials are uncertain of her age – when she suffered organ failure caused by severe alcohol addiction. Another man, aged 73, died the same way.

“Alcohol is still a killer in our region. When we have people in their early 20s dying of alcohol … that is a huge issue,” Wall said. The addiction crisis in his district needs more support.

The Kenora District supports three emergency shelters – in Sioux Lookout, Kenora, and Red Lake. Each are heaving, unable to meet the need. In 2019, 2,000 people experienced homelessness and “over 95 per cent were Indigenous,” says Mr. Wall.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already untenable housing crisis, one tied to mental health, addictions, poverty and suicide.

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“We know of [unhoused] Elders who are afraid to leave their homes to access health care because they might lose their home in the spot where they sleep,” he says.

A national Indigenous housing strategy is needed now – not one built on platitudes and future plans, but with bricks and mortar and shovels and pipes in the ground.

All levels of government and First Nations leadership must come together to devise a strategy, because what happens in the Northern communities spills over into the cities, feeding racism and misunderstanding there. The 13 who perished in Sioux Lookout should not have died this way. It is, again, Canada’s shame.

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