Saskatchewan First Nations say tuberculosis outbreaks that ravaged communities and hospitalized children should prompt federal spending to solve a dangerous housing shortfall on reserves.
Doctors and chiefs say the outbreaks, which infected more than two dozen children and killed at least one since the fall, are rooted in crowded, inadequate lodging that allows tuberculosis to persist in northern Saskatchewan even though it is all but eliminated in most of Canada.
“I could say it’s beyond dire. Tuberculosis is running rampant in some of our communities,” Prince Albert Grand Council Chief Brian Hardlotte said.
“It is a direct result of unacceptable housing, chronic conditions and overcrowded housing.”
His council submitted a joint proposal to Indigenous Services Canada in August asking for nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years to build thousand of units across 12 member nations in northern Saskatchewan.
Hardlotte estimates more than 3,500 units — ranging from apartments to four-plexes — are needed to meet a goal of 5.5 people per dwelling. Today, roughly eight in 10 of the First Nation’s members live in homes that are considered overcrowded. Hardlotte said it’s a culmination of population growth and depreciating housing.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said there are signs the outbreaks are receding. The fact it happened at all is reason to accelerate housing construction on reserves, she said.
“It is appalling, in many cases, the kinds of conditions people are expected to be living under.”
Many Canadians associate tuberculosis with another century, but in the past six months, outbreaks have been declared in three First Nations communities in northern Saskatchewan: the Fond du Lac and Black Lake Denesuline First Nations and Pelican Narrows.
Preliminary data from ISC estimated the rate of tuberculosis in Saskatchewan First Nations was 57 per 100,000 people, twice as high as the year before and six times higher than the province as a whole.
“When you have 15 people living in a house and one person has TB, it transmits very, very quickly,” said Dr. Jordan Olfert, the clinical head of the Saskatchewan TB Prevention and Control Program. ISC said one in three people diagnosed with tuberculosis in Saskatchewan in 2021 was a child.
“That’s much higher than what we’ve seen for children,” Olfert said, noting tuberculosis in children has a risk of spreading to the nervous system, causing long-term damage or even death.
“Even if you don’t pass away from it, you can be left with long-term cognitive disability or physical disability as a result of that TB. Only time will tell what happens with these children in the future and if they’ll make a full recovery or not.”
Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, the medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, said 565 priority contacts have been identified across the communities, illustrating how quickly it spreads.
“The most important piece, I think … is to invest in housing infrastructure,” Ndubuka said.
The housing gap looks different in every First Nation, Hajdu said. Some need physical space to build. Others in remote and northern locations struggle with the logistics of building homes far from urban centres. Some have plentiful revenues they can leverage to borrow money; others don’t.
Broadly, Hardlotte said investments in repairs and new builds on PAGC reserves haven’t kept pace with the rapid growth of the Indigenous population.
The Meadow Lake Tribal Council, which represents nine First Nations in northwestern Saskatchewan, recently submitted a report to a federal committee estimating its members need between 450 and 1,000 homes, but they only have funding to build 10 per year.
The First Nations Finance Authority, a non-profit financier established under federal law, said in a report to the committee that one of the barriers is that First nations can only use their own revenues as leverage for loans, not federal transfers that are subject to negotiation each year.
“Essentially, we have a vicious circle,” reads the report. “The lack of economic and infrastructure development limits own-source revenues; this in turn limits the ability to access capital to spur economic and infrastructure development.”
Gary Vidal, the MP who represents all three affected communities and is the Conservative Party’s shadow critic for Crown-Indigenous Relations, said he is pushing the government to fast-track housing investments. He suggested investing in repairs for existing but damaged homes could be a fast, cost-effective way to reduce crowding.
He called the outbreaks affecting children a tragedy.
“I need to be a dog on a bone with the minister to make sure … that this doesn’t continue, that we stop this. That’s the role I can play right now,” Vidal said.
Hajdu said funding for Indigenous housing has risen considerably under the current government but acknowledged more needs to be done. She said she was examining how First Nations could more easily leverage their assets and borrow money, as well as how to streamline First Nations’ applications to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
“I am confident that we will get that work done. I know that the road will be difficult. But I do want to say that it is a tragedy any time a child is lost, and especially when we’re talking about preventable diseases.”
The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.