WINNIPEG – Residents of a southern Manitoba First Nation have filed a lawsuit accusing the federal government of ignoring a toxic mould problem that has forced some people from their homes and made others sick.
In a statement of claim filed in Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench on Tuesday, the Dakota Plains First Nation wants compensation for the government’s alleged failure to address widespread contamination it has known about for years. “There are 32 dwellings and they’ve all been confirmed to have contaminants in the air,” Chief Orville Smoke told a news conference. “I think the lawsuit will bring attention to something that has been ongoing.”
Smoke said two families were forced by their doctor to leave the community, 80 kilometres west of Winnipeg, because of health problems attributed to mould. About 100 others have also left, many because of the mould, he added. Stan Myran, the band’s health adviser, said health complaints range from respiratory problems, chronic colds and fatigue that hit elders and children especially hard. “There are a lot of health and safety issues here that are being ignored,” said Myran. “We have to suffer through this and we’re not prepared to do that anymore.”
Housing on First Nations has been a long-standing source of friction between aboriginals and the federal government. The Assembly of First Nations wants the Department of Indian Affairs and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to get out of the business of aboriginal housing and let a First National Housing Authority set standards and codes and distribute federal funding.
Last year, Auditor General Sheila Fraser said poor construction, toxic mould and lax controls all contribute to a nasty problem that no one is fixing.
An Indian Affairs spokesman refused to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit. But Gilbert Savard said the department has given the Dakota Plains about $700,000 for emergency home repairs during the past year. He said department officials have also met regularly with the community to try to improve drainage in the area.
A report written for the band earlier this year by University of Calgary researcher Tang Lee concluded many of the houses on the reserve are not fit for human habitation and contain species of toxin-producing moulds. The report also noted the homes are a breeding ground for mould because the land appears to be muskeg and water easily seeps into dirt-covered crawlspaces. Once inside, the moisture helps mould spread easily in walls, ceiling, windowsills and floors of poorly designed houses. Myran said it has already cost more than $1 million to fix the houses and it could cost about $18 million to repair or rebuild the houses in their current location. He said it would be cheaper for Ottawa to relocate the band to drier ground.
Lawyer Andrew Kelly said the Dakota Plains deserve compensation because they don’t have a treaty with Ottawa and were forced to move to the area. Kelly said the drainage project currently being negotiated may solve the moisture problem, but will not repair the houses or alleviate suffering. “This First Nations government couldn’t go through another winter with these people trapped in their homes breathing toxic air without taking some kind of action,” he said.
Mould contamination in Fort Severn First Nation’s only school has prompted a mass exodus out of the small Cree village. “About 30 to 35 per cent of families with school-aged children have left the community because they want their kids to get a proper education,” said Deputy Chief Brian Crowe. “Some of the parents staying behind are only doing so because they can?t afford to leave. But typically, we are seeing one parent staying behind as the other leaves with the children.”
When the start of the academic year arrived, 27 of the community’s 111 students had been moved out of the community to go to school elsewhere. Before the school’s closure, there were 449 people living on reserve. “The closure of this school has affected the entire fabric of our community,” Crowe, who is also responsible for the band’s education portfolio, said. “Half of the staff at the band office have taken leaves and left the community with their children.” The cost of moving a family from the reserve, which is located along the Hudson Bay coastline, is enormous,” said Chief Roy Gray. “We have community members liquidating their assets in order to move,” he said, noting an adult fare to Thunder Bay is $621 while a child’s fare is $591. “Aside from renting units, they have to contend with deposits for gas, hydro and telephone services. Most of these people can not afford to do this as they are on welfare. 85 per cent of the community is on welfare. “A request for financial assistance for the parents from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has, so far, produced no response,” Gray said. Gray said it is “a very frustrating and difficult situation. “This is a great concern for us because entire families are being separated,” he said. “Emotional ties are being torn apart.”
The problem first surfaced when a routine mould assessment was done on Wasaho School along with the rest of the community’s housing stock prompted its sudden closure this spring when it was discovered to be badly contaminated with mould, Crowe said. “There are nearly a dozen different species of mould growing in the school,” Crowe said. “One of those, we were told, is considered to be toxic to humans by Health Canada.” Boarded up, the building remains as it has since early June – boarded up and locked – although school resumed for the 111 students scheduled to attend classes. The extra measure was taken to protect the health of staff, students and any unsuspecting guests who might decide to try and venture into the former hub of the community, Crowe said. “Under Canada’s health code, an acceptable maximum level of mould in any given area of a building is 32 colony forming units (CFU) per square foot,” he said. “The amount of mould we had in the school is way over that limit. We recorded over 1,000 CFUs per square foot.” Before the mould was discovered, staff and students at the school were continually ill.
“Over the years, the sick days among our teaching staff and students had been climbing,” he said. “But this last year was the worst in accumulated sick days.” Children were falling asleep at their desks or were hit with sudden severe nosebleeds, which went unexplained. “On any given day, half of the students weren’t in class,” Crowe said. “They were at home sick as a direct result of the mould.” The mould was negatively affecting the academic grades of the students as well, Crowe said. “Their marks weren’t as high as we would have liked them,” he said. The highest concentration of mould in the building was found in a basement crawl space. The mouldy air was circulating throughout the school.
A community health assessment done in direct response to the mould contamination revealed a myriad of problems. A reactive airway disease touched sixty-seven people assessed who reported symptoms that ranged from coughing, wheezing and chest pains to nausea, lethargy and heart palpitations. “Our teachers reported having constant headaches and colds all throughout the year,” Crowe said. “One teacher had cold-like symptoms which lasted over two months that she just couldn’t shake, but she kept on working.” When the mould assessment was done, it was found that the housing provided for the teachers were also contaminated with various types of the fungus, added Crowe, noting that the housing for the teachers was built in close proximity to the school.