Gladys Norwegian, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations (DFN), said this week she will be “listening and watching closely” how public housing management materializes in the region, after the NWT Housing Corporation temporarily disbanded the Fort Simpson Housing Authority board and decided – contrary to local complaints – that reports of bedbugs have been addressed.
Norwegian and her government sent a news release to Northern media outlets on July 29 in response to stories by News/North and other outlets.
She was among local leaders of government and non-profit organizations who attended meetings held by the Fort Simpson Housing Authority since June which sought to deal with what the local body identified as a bed bug emergency.
She said in an interview with News/North this week that she wants an independent review to be done by a third party to clarify what is happening with housing management with these issues, because she said there is too much of a discrepancy in accounts between local officials and the NWT Housing Corporation in Yellowknife.
“We are very concerned because we don’t want all of this happening at the cost of the tenants,” she said.
“We don’t want to get into a he-said, she-said, so to be able to move on fairly quickly is to ask for an independent review.”
Norwegian said as a regional government, the DFN has not been closely involved with public housing, but she remains very concerned about housing conditions for tenants, who in many cases involve vulnerable Indigenous and First Nations people. This includes both elders and younger tenants, she added.
“Housing is a big issue,” she said. “It has been talked about for so many years and these are the kinds of issues with it. It shows me that it is not being taken seriously (by the GNWT). And that doesn’t sit with me very well.
“We’re talking about vulnerable people and people that cannot really speak for themselves. They are struggling with addictions, unemployment, and so many other issues. Then this (bed bugs) happens to them.
With the Dene Annual Assembly taking place this past week, she said it “raised a red flag” and added concern because with people travelling and moving, it could lead to a higher chance of bed bugs spreading.
“As a regional organization I am very concerned that … it can easily spread to surrounding communities,” she said of the bed bugs.
Overreach by the GNWT
Norwegian said both the temporary disbanding of the local housing authority board and the bedbug issue represent what she sees as continued patterns by GNWT bureaucrats based in Yellowknife “overreaching” into local matters.
She said she agrees with one source who reached out to News/North that stated, “locally we know best of the issues.”
“I think down the road our position (as Dehcho First Nations) is that we’re working toward transferring jurisdictions of different social services away from the GNWT,” she said, pointing to – as yet another example – the NWT’s continued failure to properly manage child welfare, according to a report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada in 2018.
“If these claims from the local authority are true, then a more regional or local control of issues would be better than it all coming from Yellowknife.”
Emergency materials for tenants
Other people who attended meetings, particularly a June 13 inter-agency emergency meeting hosted by FHSA included Suzette Montreuil, executive director of the NWT Seniors Society.
Based on emails obtained by News/North, Montreuil was able to obtain “five bags of blankets, sheets and towels” from the Salvation Army of Yellowknife and St. Patrick’s Vinnies Thrift Store to ensure tenants in Fort Simpson were prepared in the case of having to remove tenants from their units for days at a time.
Emails obtained by News/North show that tenants were either unwilling or unable to be moved out due to the disabilities or ailments suffered and increased services required as well as the potential of spreading the bed bugs further.
Montreuil said this week that the senior’s society doesn’t have direct involvement with either the Fort Simpson housing authority board issue or the bed bugs issue. However, as “an ally,” the seniors society is concerned about the well-being of seniors and elders and their living environments across the NWT
“We were trying to help meet the needs as they were presented by the Fort Simpson Housing Authority,” Montreuil said. “I have nothing to say about the housing authority board operations issues. I know nothing about that.
“What I can say is that the NWT Seniors Society is always concerned that seniors have a decent and safe place to live that they can afford. That is why we would be involved in any situation like that.”
Montreuil said with communal living situations such as the clusters where seniors live in Fort Simpson, there is always the risk of bed bugs spreading.
According to emails obtained by News/North, Montreuil’s efforts coincided with other emergency efforts by locals, including Chief of the Liidlii Kue First Nation Gerry Antoine seeking food “for any dislocated tenants” and the village recreational co-ordinator seeking temporary shelter for tenants at the recreation centre.
These efforts were largely due to the GNWT Municipal and Community Affairs district office indicating that there were no supplies for emergencies of this nature, as it is considered a village responsibility. The village also indicated in emails there were no “stock emergency supplies and would have to request that they be brought in if there were an emergency.”
Robert Tordiff, assistant deputy minister with Municipal and Community Affairs said his department is involved in emergency planning for critical infrastructure dealing with major events like fires or floods. He agreed that bedbug infestation in public housing would not be considered among those factors that would trigger a response and that these types of issues are usually dealt with by local municipal government or by the housing corporation itself.
“We would not have direct, or indirect, really, in something like that,” he said.
Questions were sent to NWTHC officials as well as Liidlii Kue First Nation and Fort Simpson Metis Nation for responses to questions based on emails obtained by News/North over the weekend but did not receive a response as of Thursday.