Abuse, black mould and First Nation fractures in Burwash

Maureen Johnson didn't know there were mushrooms growing in her bathroom. "You're kidding, homegrown mushrooms," said her sister Alyce, going down the hall to take a look.

Maureen Johnson didn’t know there were mushrooms growing in her bathroom.

“You’re kidding, homegrown mushrooms,” said her sister Alyce, going down the hall to take a look.

The leaking pipes, peeling floors, black mould in the kitchen and dark goo covering the inside of the water tank were familiar features.

But the slimy white mushrooms were new.

Like most houses in the tiny community of Burwash Landing, Maureen’s home belongs to the Kluane First Nation.

Two years ago, after receiving more than $1.5 million through the Northern Housing Trust, it built 10 new houses for its members. Both Maureen and Alyce applied, but neither sister got a house.

Alyce has been homeless in her community for almost a decade.

“I call myself the village vagabond,” she said.

At the new Copper Joe Subdivision, a five-minute drive from Maureen’s dilapidated home, blond log houses are nestled against the shores of Kluane Lake capped with shiny red and green tin roofs.

Although all the houses were given to First Nation members, many remain empty.

“That house, the individual lives in Alaska,” said Alyce, pointing at a new home with beige siding. “We’re lucky to see him once a year.” An even bigger log home, up on the bluff, was allocated to a First Nation member who’d been assigned a home in Burwash Landing five years earlier.

“So he’s had two brand new houses in a five-year span,” said Alyce.

During that same period, Alyce’s housing applications were repeatedly denied.

The amount of money a First Nation gets for housing depends on the Indian registry list, a federal document that decides who is aboriginal and who isn’t. When Kluane First Nation applies for federal funding from Indian and Northern Affairs, all members are tallied, including Alyce and Maureen. The more members, the more money it gets.

“But we don’t receive the benefits, despite the fact they count our little brown heads,” said Alyce.

A Trent University graduate student, Alyce returned to Burwash in 2004 to start a Southern Tutchone language program. But she couldn’t find a place to live and ended up at the summer camp where she grew up.

Down a bumpy dirt road, about 10 minutes from the community, an old log cabin sits on the banks of a wide gravel delta. In summers past, when Alyce came home from residential school with her siblings, the family would use the camp while hunting, smoking meat, tanning hides and picking berries.

It was never intended as a winter residence.

Any heat coming from the small woodstove was lost through a crack under the worn door and out the single-pane windows.

“At 35 below, the north wind would blow snow under the door and no amount of wood could keep this place warm,” said Alyce.

Teaching Kluane children their native tongue should have ensured Alyce staff housing in the village, but she wasn’t assigned a house until January 2008.

A few months after she moved in, the water system stopped working, but hauling water from the village laundromat was still easier than life at her family’s summer camp.

Alyce repeatedly asked the First Nation to fix the water system, since nothing worked, including the toilets. But the repairs never happened and she was evicted a year later – the man who was allocated the house in 1995 was returning, and Alyce was ordered to move.

As soon as she left, the repairs were made.

Between stints at Trent, Alyce stays with Maureen, or out at a small log cabin she’s building on a cleared piece of land several kilometres from the village. Potatoes, onions and strawberries were thriving in a raised bed overlooking the creek, and a fire pit was surrounded by chairs and benches.

“I want to run a summer program for our children here, out on the land,” said Alyce. “Rather than be a professor at university, I’d rather be a professor of the land and teach methodology from here.”

But the Kluane First Nation has not implemented any school programs – not even a language program. Alyce is employed by the Yukon government, and only works with the kids once a week, despite attempts to get a full-time program running for the past five years.

“Kluane First Nation continues to use the excuse it needs to develop policies,” she said. “How long do I need to continue to bang my head against the wall?”

Alyce is ready to call it quits and work for another First Nation. “A Champagne/Aishihik elder told me, ‘Burwash will train them and we will take them,’” said Alyce.

Burwash has more post-secondary students per capita than most communities in Canada, with certified plumbers, carpenters, teachers, social workers and lawyers. But the First Nation is not utilizing its human resources, said Alyce. “That’s why people move away.”

One Kluane contractor, who rents dump trucks and loaders, can’t get enough work. Most of his contracts are with Whitehorse-based Skookum Asphalt or the territorial government.

“I bid on (Kluane First Nation) contracts, but most of them go to Dickson,” said the man, who was afraid to be identified for fear of losing future work.

Dennis Dickson, the competition, has family working for the First Nation. His nephew, Bob Dickson, drives for him. He’s also director of Kluane’s public works board.

“There’s a lot of political nepotism here,” said Alyce.

When the First Nation started to negotiate its final agreement in 1973, fractures formed in the community.

“And when the money came in, it was like a mini gold rush – people got really corrupt and really greedy,” said Maureen, who blames ongoing family feuds and political favoritism for the state of her home.

When the water pump in her house broke, Maureen phoned public works. It took the First Nation two years to install a new one.

Like Alyce, Maureen hauled water and showered at the laundromat. Today, Maureen can’t use her water to cook because of the black goo in her old water tank. She buys bottled water.

In the last year, most community houses have had new water tanks installed. But not Maureen’s.

The First Nation patched the black mould by her sink. “But you can still smell the mould in here,” she said.

Burwash Museum clerk Donna Blais used to work for the First Nation. When she gave notice, Blais was given two days to move.

“No one tells you ahead of time what’s going to happen,” she said. “And there’s no clear communication.”

When she was still working for the First Nation, Blais informed public works she had a broken oven. She was also out of water.

“And they said, ‘Well, we’ll get you water,’” she said. “They don’t identify the problems.”

Another village resident has been waiting for new doors for six months. And his furnace malfunctioned, but, after a few frigid weeks, he hired his brother to fix it.

“We are paying for services that should be provided,” he said, asking not to be named for fear of repercussions. “Anytime I get a few dollars I get paint,” he added, pointing at his grimy walls. The man also needs a new tub. “It’s surrounded by mould,” he said.

The First Nation is responsible for these repairs. “And most of the houses around here get renos all the time,” he said. But he’s still waiting.

A young family asked for a new hot water tank when their old one conked out. After four weeks with no hot water, the father finally installed the new tank himself.

An elder, also afraid to have his name printed, pointed to a half-finished kitchen. New cupboards with no handles hung over an unfinished floor.

“It’s been one and a half years and the renos are still not done,” said the 74-year-old. “I don’t know if they’re just going to forget about it.”

Dickson’s contracting was doing the work. “They leave a big mess and then don’t finish the job,” said the elder’s son. “There’s no accountability – it’s a joke.”

Bob Dickson was not at public works when the News visited Burwash. The only guy there was municipal services maintenance worker Herb Danroth.

Danroth moved to Burwash Landing after Safer Communities and Neighbours legislation (SCAN) – which targets drug dealers – had him evicted fromWhitehorse’s Baranovtrailer park.

“You’ve got to be a certain type of person to live here,” said Danroth, leaning back in his swivel chair. “

Kluane First Nation gave Danroth, who’s from Chilliwack, BC, a staff house. Rent is $200 a month.

On his office whiteboard was a long list of houses needing repairs.

“You can ask for stuff, but you don’t always get it, right,” he said of the repairs. “But if it’s a KFN house then it gets looked after, and they’re all KFN houses.”

Mushrooms growing out of a bathroom floor would be dealt with immediately, he said. But mould isn’t a problem in the community, said Danroth. “We have mildew kill, we brought it in out of Alberta.

“And we had guys come and drill in all these old homes to test for black mould, and there wasn’t enough to do any harm to a person, but I imagine there was something of some type.

“If they cleaned them right, they probably wouldn’t have it – that’s all I’ve got to say about the mould situation.”

There’s a housing shortage in the community, said Danroth, who’s lived here three years.

“But native people aren’t like white people,” he said. “Native people have a lot of places they stay, they’re not in one place too long.

“And the only crisis here is not enough people working, the turnover of people is phenomenal.

“But there’s lots of contract work. First Nation people love contracts – I know a lot about them. It makes them feel better about themselves, working for themselves seven hours a day, because they don’t like being told a lot.”

Alyce won’t go into the public works office.

The last few times she walked into Danroth and Dickson’s office she received an onslaught of verbal abuse.

“There’s a lot of fear here,” said Maureen. “People don’t want to speak out or rock the boat because what benefits they do get might be taken away.

“There’s a lot of pressure and threats. But to effect change you need to take risks”

Maureen, who works for health and social, was attacked and badly beaten a few years ago after publicly revealing bias in housing allocations.

“We were discriminated against before, and now we’re discriminated against by our own people,” she said.

“The land claims were supposed to help us get out of poverty, not increase it.

“But it’s making a number of people wealthy, while the rest of us are still very, very poor.”

Calls to Kluane Chief

Wilfred Sheldon and public works director Bob Dickson were not returned.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com