Reserve Housing — a Burning Issue

Worth A Look, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

A flurry of reports in recent weeks to the effect that Ottawa might amend the Indian Act to allow for private ownership of homes on reserves got me thinking about the fire truck at St. Theresa Point. Let me explain.

The idea of allowing private ownership is a good one. Ownership would create a substantial asset for aboriginal people, one that could be used to create more wealth. A homeowner, for example, could mortgage the asset and use the money to build or acquire a second house that could be sold or rented as is done everywhere in Canada except on reserves where ownership of land is communal and private ownership is prohibited.

A privately owned home could be used as collateral to start a business that also could be privately owned and could, therefore, be managed in such a way that it actually made money and produced jobs — two things that are in short supply on reserves, where there are virtually no private businesses, which largely explains why there are no jobs and virtually no local economy.

Ownership might encourage aboriginal people to take better care of their property so as to preserve or increase its value. One need not look far on any reserve in Canada to find examples of homes and other “public” property that have been inadequately maintained, where the paint long ago faded to nothing, where the windows are covered in plywood to keep out the elements and the walls are wrapped in plastic to keep in the heat.

On a recent tour of winter roads on the East Side of Manitoba, I saw endless examples of what the lack of ownership encourages –poorly maintained homes and public buildings, many that had been destroyed by neglect and vandalism despite a chronic shortage of housing units and a desperate need for “public” buildings that inspire something more than disrespect and vandalism.

Not all property is in ruin, of course. Many houses look new — some are — and often the door to a shabby house opens to reveal a cozy, comfortable interior that reflects the pride of the occupant. I was reminded of homes in former Soviet countries where “communal” ownership has proved a disaster. In those places, state-owned buildings looked like slums from the outside, but inside, where the occupants lived with their personal property, everything often was tickety boo.

But that said, the condition of many properties, it seemed to me, mirrored what they were worth to the occupants and users — nothing.

Which brings me to the fire truck in St. Theresa Point.

In the centre of the community, on the edge of a sort of square created by the Northern Store, band offices, day care, training centre and the arena, stood a garage, the front door of which was open so that a snowbank had formed blocking the entrance.

Inside, just over the snowbank, could be seen a fire truck, a rather nice fire truck, as fire trucks go. Its chrome gleamed, its paint shone, albeit from beneath a layer of dust. The big pumper unit at the back was a marvel of polished aluminum and gauges and fitting and outlets for firehoses. It had cost a reported $100,000.

The odometer showed just 8,889 kilometres. I know, because after I climbed over the snowbank, got inside the garage, opened the unlocked front door and checked. Scattered everywhere around the truck was firefighting gear. There were helmets with visors, and oxygen tanks and breathing apparatuses. There were manuals and reports and boxes of documents.

As near as I was able to determine, the firetruck has not been used in five years. The reason?

As nice as it looked, it was unusable because its mechanisms had, for reasons not entirely clear, been ruined when water inside froze years ago causing the pumps and all the rest to rupture.

In five years, St. Theresa Point has not had the truck repaired, although there have been several fires and at least two fire-related deaths.

St. Theresa Point is not alone in having a fire truck in name only. Across Island Lake at Garden Hill, the fire truck also came to an untimely end. In the past month, three houses have burned to the ground at Garden Hill.

Why communities of several thousands of people do not insist that the community fire truck be in serviceable condition I cannot say.

It could be that when you have nothing, that’s what you have to lose.