In a quiet voice, Chisasibi Elder Marion Sam Cox gave dramatic testimony about the impacts of the Cree housing crisis before MPs in Ottawa last week.

“I couldn’t go to work a lot of times because I had severe headaches and asthma attacks all the time,” Cox said in Cree through a translator.

“I knew it was the house making me sick because I never had those problems before. I had to go to the clinic all the time. The doctor said I had to use a puffer and medication for the rest of my life,” she said.

Cox was part of a large Cree delegation that traveled to Ottawa to speak about the housing emergency at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs.

Cree officials say years of underfunding have left Cree communities with a backlog of 1,400 homes, 250 old houses that should be torn down and another 600 new homes needed for young families over the next five years.

Total cost: $427 million.

Grand Chief Ted Moses told MPs the situation is a crisis and accused the Canadian government of stalling until the problem has become a serious health and social emergency.

“I call it a timebomb,” he said. “We have been trying for many years to address the issue of housing, only to be told that officials don’t have a mandate.”

Moses said 60 percent of Cree homes are overcrowded by Canadian standards. Mistissini is the worst, with 79 percent overcrowding, followed by Chisasibi, with 62 percent.

He said the average Cree home has 5.2 people, way more than the Quebec average of 2.5.

The overcrowding is causing enormous health and social calamities.

Moses invited Members of Parliament to the Cree communities to see the problems first-hand.

Norm Hawkins, a housing advisor for the Crees, said the overcrowding leads to high humidity and mould build-up, which make homes unsafe.

In Chisasibi alone, 179 inhabited houses need to be torn down due to mould, said Hawkins. “But there is no place to put those people. We can’t have people live in tents at 40 below zero,” he said.

Especially dramatic was the testimony of Dr. Robert Harris, a public-health specialist who works in Chisasibi.

He said the mould and humidity in homes have led to serious respiratory and ear infections, and many sick kids. Community members are hospitalized twice as often as average, stay in hospital three times longer, the death rate is 2.6 times higher and 10 times as many potential years of life are lost due to respiratory problems.

He said humidity in the homes is 50 to 80 percent, compared to the recommended 30 percent. Common complaints: foul odors, fungus, sewage backup, asthma, wheezing and nausea.

Harris gave the example of Marion Sam Cox. She had an average of 18 emergency room visits per year for asthma in one of the “sick” houses. When she moved to a new house, she only had four emergency room visits per year.

The mould is worst in basements and bathrooms, which are shared by too many people, said Dr. Harris.

Cax told us 16 people were living in her three-bedroom house for three or four years.

Other findings:

♦ 43 percent of houses reported problems with moulds

♦ 68 percent of houses report sagging ceilings, bent walls, uneven floors and other structural problems

♦ 58 percent had sand coming in windows from unpaved streets

♦ 36 percent of houses have windows that can’t be opened

♦ 35 percent have boarded-up windows

♦ 53 percent don’t have a working air exchanger

♦ 48 percent of very crowded homes reported social, alcohol and family violence problems, compared to only 20 percent of homes that were not crowded

♦ People in a mouldy house have twice the risk of wheezing and sore throats than people with no mould, 3 times greater risk of sinus problems and 1.9 times greater risk of developing depression.

A top Indian Affairs official downplayed the health problems, saying they may be largely the Crees’ fault. “A lot of this is because of lack of awareness of house owners,” said Ian Corbin, director of infrastructure and housing at Indian Affairs.

“A lot of this is the result of poor maintenance and lack of awareness of house owners of what they should do to get rid of mould,” he said.

Hawkins said that’s not true. He said the moisture and mould are the result of overcrowding. “Those houses were designed for an average family with four or five people, not 10, 12, 15 people.”

Vir Handa, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo who testified on behalf of the Crees, agreed.

“The amount of moisture generated is completely out of proportion to the house’s ability to absorb it. The problem is not the house – it’s overcrowding.”

The MPs were told that the problems are only worsening as the large number of Cree youth make new families.