Pikangikum: 25 in 25

By Tanya Baleta, Communications Coordinator

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Posted on December 2, 2015

As part of our Advent Ask, St. Paul’s is raising $25,000 in 25 days for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund to provide running water to people living in Pikangikum, a remote fly-in community located in northwest Ontario.

Pikangikum is rife with social problems including housing shortages, lack of running water, poverty, addiction and food insecurity. The community made headlines in 2012 when it was declared the suicide capital of the world. Pikangikum, home to approximately 2,800 people, has seen over 80 suicides and 700 attempted suicides in the last 10 years.

“We’ve allowed conditions to exist in our own country that we don’t want to see anywhere else,” said the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop. “It’s an astonishing thing. And it ought to move us to action, to compassion.”

Without running water, residents (often children) are forced to fill large blue bottles with water from three standpipes. Though the water in the standpipes is treated, it often becomes contaminated due to permafrost heaving. Houses are not fitted with bathrooms, so open pit toilets are typically located in front or side yards. Some have no enclosures for privacy or to protect against the elements. Waste water is dumped on the property.

According to Bishop Mark, these problems have been perpetuated by the perfect storm. “The difficulties have been habituated into the systems,” he explained. “Initially, nobody ever thought that indigenous people would survive physically. So these communities were really designed to fail.”

Bishop Mark formed a group called Pimatisiwin Nipi (Oji-Cree for “Living Water”) in 2012. The group is comprised of 40 to 50 Anglican parishes across Canada focused on raising funds, through PWRDF, to provide water and waste water treatment and distribution in Pikangikum.

In 2012, the chief and council in Pikangikum identified lack of running water as a primary concern for the community. “We felt this was an urgent need, identified by the people, and that we could have a big impact,” said Bishop Mark. “So we went for it.”

To date, 10 homes in the community have been retrofitted with running water and functioning bathrooms. Plans are in place to retrofit 10 more. Houses are chosen based on need, with the neediest families receiving water first. Homes of the chief and council have not been retrofitted, as the Chief, Paddy Peters, declared, “We will not live above our people.”

One of the neediest households, a family of 13, had water installed in their home last year. The mother had lost a leg to diabetes, while the grandmother had lost both her legs. Since finally being provided with access to clean water, the family saw relief to many of their health issues often associated with poor hygiene. The children no longer suffer with scabies and now attend school. Their mother told volunteers she finally felt like she could look after her children properly.

“Ultimately, we want to advocate for a more effective response from the governments,” said Bishop Mark. “But we’re talking about an emergency need and we’re responding to it in a way that feeds into a long term solution. We’re not just applying band aids, we’re providing help and support that will feed into a more permanent solution to the problems in indigenous communities.”

Bishop Mark acknowledges that ideally emergency response would be coming from the government. “And we’ll hope the new government is more forthcoming,” he said. “But to say we should wait while communities suffer is cruel. Particularly when we have the capacity to do this.”

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