As seen on Fort McMurray Today.
Cenovus Energy is spending $50 million over five years on improving housing in six Indigenous communities, including Janvier, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Conklin.
It is the largest community investment in the company’s history, and the first major commitment towards housing made in Wood Buffalo’s southern rural communities.
“We can’t solve the Indigenous housing crisis by ourselves, but through this initiative, we have the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many families currently living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions,” said Alex Pourbaix, Cenovus’ president and CEO, in a Thursday morning statement.
The project will build about 200 new homes during the next five years, with the potential to stretch the project to 10 years and a $100 million commitment.
Cenovus will also develop training programs so local residents can be trained to take part in the construction and maintenance of the new homes.
In Wood Buffalo, company leaders will start the program after partnering with the leadership of Chard Métis Local 218 in Janvier, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Conklin Métis Local 193.
The other communities included in the program are Heart Lake First Nation and Beaver Lake Cree Nation, both near Lac La Biche; and Cold Lake First Nations.
“Communities have done an admirable job in managing their housing with limited resources. But this is a complex issue that will require new ideas and collaboration among many stakeholders,” said Pourbaix. “We hope to inspire other companies, governments and organizations to get involved.”
Rural housing described as crisis in Wood Buffalo
In Conklin, the housing situation has been described as a crisis by all levels of government since the early 2000s. At the time of Cenovus’ announcement, no non-governmental organization or government agency had offered a timeline, strategy or funding for replacing collapsing homes with suitable housing.
The Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee estimates at least one-third of the hamlet lives this way; the 2018 municipal census puts Conklin’s population at 229.
A January 2019 study from the Alberta Rural Development Network hints the problem could actually be worse. They found 92 people in Conklin living in unstable housing, including an infant. That comes to roughly 40 per cent.
Val Quintal, CRDAC board member and Conklin Métis representative, said on Thursday talks with Pourbaix began more than a year ago when he toured the community.
She says he was “genuinely concerned and appalled” at Conklin’s housing situation. Quintal estimates Conklin needs at least 46 new homes. The next step is to work with the municipality to make sure there is enough room for the community to expand.
Announcement ‘absolutely groundbreaking’
In a March 2018 report on the issue for the CRDAC, researcher Peter Fortna blames many of Conklin’s housing problems on a shortage of available land, poor funding for social housing projects, and a local non-profit sector with barely enough resources to offer serious support outside Fort McMurray.
“I don’t really care who pays for it because there’s a need in the community and someone needs to do it,” said Fortna in a Thursday morning interview. “I’m glad Cenovus realizes what it means to be a good neighbour, and is investing in the number one need in Janvier and Conklin.”
In Janvier, Chard Métis CEO Justin Herman called the announcement “absolutely groundbreaking” and hopes it sets a precedent for other companies.
Chief Vern Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation described the housing situation in his community as dire. At a press conference in Calgary, Janvier blamed Canada’s Indigenous housing crisis on the federal government’s failure to properly fund on-reserve housing. He said a corporation stepping in to fix that problem was “a new type of concept.”
“We’re getting to the point where we have two families living in one house, and in some cases three,” he said in a statement. “On top of the houses that are in disrepair, we have demand for another 50 houses. That’s how it builds up on us. And that’s just our reserve.”
First Nation and Métis leaders in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan have also said they are fighting a housing situation similar to the one described by Janvier. Some of them, like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Fort McKay Métis Nation, are using their own resources to build new homes. Wood Buffalo Housing has also signed agreements with Indigenous communities in the region.
Fortna and Quintal both hope addressing the housing crisis in these communities will also improve complaints about the quality of education offered, food insecurity, crime, and access to health care and social services.
“It will all work together,” said Quintal. “We hope it will be a common place to work on all our issues.”
-with files from Amanda Stephenson