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'I can't keep bugging them': Behchokǫ̀ elder pleads for help with frozen pipes

Behchokǫ̀ elder Celine Whane said that after years of trying to get her frozen pipes fixed, she feels helpless. (Sarah Krymalowski/CBC - image credit)
Behchokǫ̀ elder Celine Whane said that after years of trying to get her frozen pipes fixed, she feels helpless. (Sarah Krymalowski/CBC - image credit)

Behchokǫ̀ elder Celine Whane starts her day by climbing up on a chair so that she can reach her water tank, and then using an axe to break the inches-thick layer of ice on top.

Then, she carefully fills a bucket of water from the tank and lowers it down before climbing off the chair.

Whane, 77, estimates she hauls about 10 buckets of water a day from her tank by hand — and that's just for drinking, cooking and washing dishes.

Her home has been without running water since about a week before Christmas.

The Tłı̨chǫ government has told her it will repair her home as soon as they have secured temporary rental housing where she can stay during the repairs. But she still hasn't heard anything about when that will be — and after years of difficulty getting repairs on her home completed, she feels helpless.

"I don't know nothing about [repairs]. So how am I going to do it? I asked them already, I can't keep bugging them," she said.

'I can't do anything for my grandchildren'

For the past week, five of her grandchildren have been staying with her, along with their parents, because they had no heating in the cabin where they were living. In total, there are 13 people staying in her home right now.

Since her pipes froze, she hasn't been able to do laundry.

For showers, the family is relying on sponge baths every few days with water heated on her stove.

And because the toilet isn't flushing, they are using a honey bucket for the washroom. Whane or one of her sons has been taking out the full honey bucket.

"It's deeply sad inside, but I can't show them. But I cry," she said.

"I say I can't do anything for my grandchildren because we have no running water. We all need a good bath, you know, we all need a good bath. I need a good bath, a good shower."

Many repairs needed

It's not the first time she has been without running water for an extended period of time. CBC covered Whane's situation in 2021, when she was unable to use running water for over a month after her sewage pipe froze completely.

According to Whane, the pipes in her home, where she has lived since 1988, were never properly insulated. Her common-law partner used to fix them himself, but since he died in 2017, she says they have frozen every year.

It's just one of many repairs her home needs.

The windows in her house are too small for their frames. One of her sons sealed the gap with duct tape, but cold air still blows through. The house's foundation is unstable because it was built on muskeg. And one door doesn't fit properly in its frame.

The windows in Celine Whane's home are too small for their frames. One of her sons has sealed the gap with duct tape, but cold air still blows through them into the house
The windows in Celine Whane's home are too small for their frames. One of her sons has sealed the gap with duct tape, but cold air still blows through them into the house

The windows in Celine Whane's home are too small for their frames. One of her sons has sealed the gap with duct tape, but cold air still blows through them into the house (Sarah Krymalowski/CBC)

Struggling to access help

Housing NWT offers two types of forgivable loans specifically targeted for seniors who need repairs or improvements done on their homes: the Seniors Aging in Place program and the Seniors Home repairs Program. To be eligible for these program, it is necessary to prove your income falls below a certain threshold.

Chief executive officer Eleanor Young said Housing NWT has made changes to make these loans easier to access by streamlining their online application portal and making it easier to prove your income. And in January of 2022, they removed the requirement that seniors have home insurance and land tenure to be eligible for the money.

"I think we're doing as much as we can do right now, but we can always do more," Young said, adding that Housing NWT is planning to do more consultations in small communities next year about how they can improve their programming.

"I think we're doing as much as we can do right now, but we can always do more," Housing NWT CEO Eleanor Young said about the need to provide more housing support to elders.
"I think we're doing as much as we can do right now, but we can always do more," Housing NWT CEO Eleanor Young said about the need to provide more housing support to elders.

"I think we're doing as much as we can do right now, but we can always do more," Housing NWT CEO Eleanor Young said about the need to provide more housing support to elders. (Travis Burke/CBC)

But Whane said she didn't know about these programs, and wouldn't know how to apply for them.

She said she has been able to get some repairs done on her home in the past few years. Her furnace was recently replaced, and her water tank was drained and cleaned this fall. But she doesn't know where the funding from those repairs came from.

Since she stopped being able to do repairs on her home herself, she said she has relied on asking staff from the Tłı̨chǫ government in Behchokǫ̀ for help.

"That's the only one I can go to," she said.

For now, Whane said she already has most of her clothes and belongings packed into boxes for a potential move, and is hoping she gets more information about her temporary rental housing from the Tłı̨chǫ government soon.

"If they give me a key, I'll move. If they tell me where the location is, I'll move. I would gladly move because this is cold. When it's windy, it's cold."

When CBC reached out the Tłı̨chǫ government for an interview about Whane's housing, they confirmed by email they are working to repair Whane's house. The email said staff are "currently working with her to confirm a move date so the repairs can be scheduled and completed."

The Tłı̨chǫ government did not immediately respond to CBC's request for information the estimated timeline for the repairs to Whane's house.

As of Sunday morning, Whane still had no details about when repairs to her home are happening. She still had no running water.