Growing up in the remote, fly-in community of Kashechewan First Nation, Derek Stephen was all too familiar with the evacuation process.
Nearly every spring, as the Albany River swelled, Stephen and his fellow community members would have to leave their home for dryer ground, usually for weeks at a time. People are evacuated to Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sudbury, and beyond, but families are often broken up, causing worry and disruption.
"It was really disheartening to see families being displaced throughout Ontario, as far as Cornwall, to Thunder Bay and Fort Frances and those kind of areas, and there's 100 (people) here, 150 here, 300 here," he said.
"Especially with Elders and parents of young families that are being displaced throughout Ontario, they were worried how family's doing."
Stephen decided there must be a better way.
For the last two and a half years, the former Kashechewan chief has been working on the idea of a permanent 'home away from home' where families evacuated from remote Northern communities could remain together while resuming their everyday lives in a way that's as close to normal as possible.
Through his company, CREE-Ative Structures, he's launched the idea of a pair of permanent emergency housing centres, to be constructed first in Timmins and then Thunder Bay, each with 120 to 130 units that would include one to four bedrooms, kitchenettes, living rooms, laundry facilities and more.
Ideally, Stephen said, the centres would also incorporate classrooms, so that children could continue in their education; a common area, where community members could gather for traditional cultural ceremonies; and a medical unit, where a nurse practitioner or other medical professional could address any health issues faced by residents.
When not in use, Stephen proposes the facilities be used by other organizations, such as the hospital, for family travelling to visit family members receiving care, or First Nations family services agencies, which need temporary shelter for their wards.
"We're trying to cover as much as we can through this facility where it provides assistance for the First Nations," he said.
Under the current model, evacuated residents fleeing floods, forest fires or infrastructure failures take shelter at local hotels and the cost is covered by the federal government. Residents eat mostly restaurant food, children forgo classes, and local emergency rooms and walk-in clinics are sometimes overflowing.
Stephen believes it...