The Yukon and federal governments will not provide emergency temporary homes to Ross River until they complete their own inspections of the community’s current housing stock.
This is despite an October 2016 plea from the chief of the Ross River Dena Council.
Pauline Frost, the minister of Health and Social Services and minster responsible for the Yukon Housing Corp., said today there are currently two Yukon government housing inspectors, one Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) inspector, and two Ross River project managers in the community gathering information on the state of existing homes.
“At the moment, it seems to me that it was a little premature for us to make any kind of decision on whether there’s emergency housing requirements,” Frost told the Star.
“We have a plan in place that might address that if there’s a need, but until we get the results from the inspections, (emergency temporary housing) is not something that we can respond to.”
Frost was in Ross River Wednesday with John Streicker, the minister of Community Services, and INAC representatives to discuss housing with the chief, council and members of the First Nation community.
Chief Jack Caesar of the Ross River Dena Council has called the housing situation in his community a “crisis.”
Frost suspects that the inspectors will produce some results by the end of next week, at which time the Yukon government and INAC will plan next steps.
“(INAC) really has jurisdiction; they’re the lead agency responsible for oversight,” said Frost.
“Our role as government of Yukon is really to play a role to ensure safety of the territorial residents and the residents of Ross River.”
In the lead-up to the Nov. 7, 2016 Yukon election, the Liberals vowed they would not shirk responsibility for housing in Ross River.
“These are Yukoners, and they’re living in Third World conditions,” said then-party spokesperson Valerie Royle.
A Yukon Liberal government would allocate money to housing in Ross River in its 2016-17 budget, she said.
Frost, however backpedalled today: “We’ve not committed anything,” she said.
“The federal government has contributed a significant amount of resources to the community, we want to make sure that it’s spent appropriately, that we provide guidance to them, and if there’s need for future funding, then we would work in collaboration with them to obtain the resources they need.”
INAC provided Ross River with $2.2 million for housing out of the 2016-17 federal budget, on top of annual core funding, spokesperson Rick Massie said in an email to the Star this morning.
The $2.2 million was for:
• Renovations to 10 homes;
• The demolition of abandoned homes and preparation for the construction of new band-owned homes; and
• The construction of three duplexes with three bedrooms in each unit;
• Interviews with community members on the housing situation and a demographics survey.
But according to a letter from Caesar, “these funds do not even come close to addressing the extent of the emergency in our community.”
During the election campaign, Caesar sent a letter to the four party leaders outlining the issues plaguing Ross River homes.
He called for immediate help to address the critical housing needs in his community. The letter was forwarded to local media by the Yukon Liberal Party.
“... Our housing is hurting our people who live in them,” said Caesar in the Oct. 22 letter. “Our RRDC (Ross River Dena Council) community housing is in an emergency crisis situation.”
The First Nation’s capital department recently completed an environmental contaminates study and a structural assessment of the homes in Ross River, Caesar said in the letter.
Results of the contaminants study showed that nearly half of the 130 homes had toxic levels of contaminants and were unsafe for occupation, or were in such a state of disrepair that they had been abandoned.
Twenty-seven homes that had families living in them had toxic mould or unhealthy levels of radon, petroleum, and/or sewage, said Caesar.
Sixteen homes were so damaged that they had been deserted.
Another 18 to 20 homes had toxic levels of contaminants, but could be saved by major renovations. Indeed, nearly all of the community’s homes are in need of repairs, said Caesar.
“This is a health and safety crisis for our people and RRDC (Ross River Dena Council) needs your help to address the immediate emergency and to help us solve our housing situation in the medium term,” wrote Caesar to the political leaders.
Specifically, he said, the community needs emergency temporary housing for 48 to 60 families before winter.
The chief made a number of other requests in his letter.
He asked that 20 to 40 homes be torn down and rebuilt, and for funds to train community members to do their own planning and renovations, among others.
Frost said the Liberal government wants to help build capacity in Ross River.
“We would commit to providing whatever supports are necessary, given that we have the expertise in-house and if they’re falling short on that, then we would lend that expertise,” she said.
The housing problems in Ross River are decades old and are in part the result of thawing permafrost under the community, a study has found.
A 2016 Yukon College study documented the effects of degrading permafrost on Ross River infrastructure.
It showed that highly valued public buildings, such as the school, community centre, pool and recreation centre, have a history of maintenance issues related to heaving permafrost.