Nicole Adby says she was almost living "on top of a literal pile of shit" this winter.
This past September, the sewage tank of the Conklin trailer she calls home was on the verge of overflowing.
She couldn’t find anyone who could empty the tank and feared it would burst because it was so old. So she emptied it “by hand,” dumping the raw sewage into buckets and pouring it down her mother’s septic tank.
Then it was back to worrying about keeping warm this winter in a leaking camper trailer surrounded by a flimsy wooden addition, outside her mother’s home and a converted bus where her brother lives.
“There are people I know who would not be able to live like this, the way I live,” she says. “But I’m comfortable. I’m a resourceful person. I find a way.”
Conklin’s housing situation has been described as a crisis by all levels of government since the early 2000s. Yet, no non-governmental organization or government agency has offered a timeline, strategy or funding for replacing collapsing homes with suitable housing.
Researchers, social workers and the residents themselves have warned for years that a lack of new and affordable housing has worsened while their community is surrounded by billions of dollars worth of oil.
Conklin is mostly Métis, but is not recognized as a Métis settlement. The community is a municipal hamlet within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. A drive around the hamlet will show people living in old trailers, aging modular units and shacks slapped together with scrap lumber. They often share the same lot and house generations of families.
“There are three generations of families stacked up in homes not designed for that many people,” said David Leitz, a home renovation contractor and Conklin resident who lives in a trailer with his sister. “Some of them are living in homes that should have been condemned decades ago.”
‘It’s a sin to be living this way’
The Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee estimates at least one-third of the hamlet lives this way; the 2018 municipal census puts Conklin’s population at 229.
A January 2019 study from the Alberta Rural Development Network hints the problem could actually be worse. They found 92 people in Conklin living in unstable housing, including an infant. That comes to roughly 40 per cent.
In an interview with the Today, community development manager Zain Abedin said researchers thought they had made a mistake when they first saw the data.
“We double and triple-checked it before putting out a media release,” he said. “But the data has been verified.”
In a March 2018 report on the issue for the CRDAC, researcher Peter Fortna blames many of Conklin’s housing problems on a shortage of land, poor funding for social housing projects, and a local non-profit sector with barely enough resources to offer serious support outside Fort McMurray.
Another major problem, he argues, is that many residents are unemployed, even if they have the necessary skills to work in the oil industry.
Or they may be what social workers call “working homelessness.” This is when people with few opportunities for career advancement or better wages can barely keep up with rent or afford basic housing repairs.
During interviews with residents, many complained that nearby oilsands sites operated by MEG Energy, Cenovus and CNOOC prefer using transient workers who fly in for multi-week shifts and stay in commuter camps. The staff at many of these camps are also commuters.
“It’s a sin to be living this way, especially when we’re right smack dab in the middle of oil industry,” said one participant in Fortna’s study. “Everything surrounds us.”
Leaving Conklin a tough choice for some
Some have been lucky enough to find work locally or at nearby oilsands sites. Others travel more than 150 kilometres north to Fort McMurray for work. For Ray Richards and his wife, they are slowly leaving the hamlet for work.
“There’s just no opportunity for anyone here anymore,” he says.
Richards is a former heavy equipment operator who hasn’t worked since his job placement business closed three years ago. Last January, his right leg was amputated following an infection. He is now on disability.
The only job his wife could find was at a Fort McMurray gas station. To avoid a 90-minute daily commute, the couple began renting a home in the city operated by Wood Buffalo Housing.
In Conklin, one son lives in a camper outside the house, which has its own structural problems. The second son lives in a shack Richards built, but is about to take over the main house. His daughter also moved back home after graduating from high school in Fort McMurray.
“There’s no housing for her at all, even if she was working,” said Richards. “There’s no options for them outside of campers and shacks. Why would the young people here want to stay here?”
Leaving is a major question for Métis Elder Louie Tremblay now that the converted ATCO mobile unit he lives in is collapsing.
Lately, he has become concerned about peeling siding and mould forming in his walls. He is also getting frustrated he has to use his sister’s house across the street if he needs to use the toilet or get water.
“We used to have good housing that could support families,” he said. “If this was Fort McMurray, someone would be paying attention to us.”
Anti-poverty plans having little impact in Conklin
Some people in Conklin – and similar communities – do leave, hoping to find housing, employment and social services elsewhere. The 2018 municipal census shows the population has dropped by 39 per cent since the 2015 census, when the population was 376.
A 2007 study from the Northern Alberta Development Council shows this can worsen the housing problems in both rural and urban areas.
The study states that when rural residents facing social problems, such as housing, move to cities, it creates the illusion that demand in their original communities is shrinking.
At the same time, demand in urban areas increases and existing services swell from the influx of people, taking resources away from anyone left behind in the original community.
In Conklin, residents frequently complain they are not getting the social services they need. Even churches, which historically tackle much of the charitable heavy lifting in poor neighbourhoods, have limited resources to go beyond Fort McMurray.
“There are some social services here, but a lot of them come here maybe every couple of weeks. We need some more of everything here,” said Leitz. “We need more Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, more food from the food bank, more youth programs, more social workers. You name it, and we need more of it.”
Wood Buffalo’s municipal council has tried tackling poverty in the area. The municipality has already spent $133 million bringing running water and sewage systems to its rural hamlets south of Fort McMurray, including Conklin. An estimated $220 million is needed to finish the job by 2025.
Without new homes, the problem will persist in Conklin as long as there are people living in improvised homes and makeshift shelters, which cannot be connected to the system.
“It’s a solid trailer, better than what others have. But it’s too old for the water and sewer hookups. It’s too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer,” says Tremblay.
The municipality is also about to reach the conclusion of its 10-year-plan to end homelessness, which started in 2010.
So far, the municipality estimates there has been an estimated 65 per cent drop in homelessness since the plan started giving extra funding to local organizations and non-profits that tackle poverty.
Yet with no formal studies of the housing crisis in rural areas — Fortna’s report argues the province should do this — it is also difficult to gauge the program’s true success outside Fort McMurray.
With no long-term solutions planned, the program is likely to fail.
Last month, Wood Buffalo Housing began reviewing its programs. The organization was already $1.5 million in debt when a trimmed provincial budget was released.
Since then, the organization has stopped taking applications for rent subsidies, and will cut existing ones by 24 per cent. Social housing funding will drop by 3.5 per cent.
In Conklin, the organization was already maintaining 16 housing units and was hoping to fund another 46 living spaces.
There is no word yet on whether that funding will arrive, but the people of Conklin aren’t holding their breaths.
“If this was Fort McMurray, someone would be paying attention to us,” said Tremblay.