Thoughts on the potential for economic development between St. Thomas and First Nations of Ontario

The following was forwarded to City Scope by St. Thomas resident Bev Walpole and illustrates the “outside-of-the-box” thinking so sorely lacking today. It’s a case of addressing a large-scale national issue with a made-in-St.Thomas solution.Please take a few moments to read Bev’s paper and feel free to comment. This is certainly far removed from the initiatives currently being floated by local politicians and business development groups . . .

From 1978-1985 I was a public health inspector working for the federal department then known as Health and Welfare Canada, Medical Services Branch. My duties included advising Inuit and First Nations communities about sanitation and environmental issues. My work took me throughout the Northwest Territories, part of what is now Nunavut, Northern Saskatchewan and the province of Manitoba. During those years I encountered problems in those communities such as inadequate housing, inadequate and improper disposal of sewage, unsafe water supplies and the myriad of social issues endured by the citizens of those communities.

Throughout those years, I did my best to advocate for more and better housing, clean, safe water supplies and safe disposal of sewage and household wastes. I approached my own department as well as the Department of Indian affairs on behalf of the communities. I encouraged the leaders of the community to work towards improvement of conditions on their reserves and villages. The response from the community leaders was to ask where the money would come from to improve their situation. The Federal government departments for whom I worked and to whom I advocated on behalf of the communities responded with excuses such as “there is no money; resources are limited; and they’ll only wreck it anyway.” It was frustrating to visit these isolated communities, each time reporting on conditions and submitting recommendations for improvement and realizing that probably nothing would be done to make the situation better. I recall mentioning to a friend that if the temperature was to increase in the northern communities, disease would spread like wildfire because of the improper disposal of human waste, and the consumption of untreated or improperly treated water supplies.

Here we are 30 years later and nothing has changed.

In recent years St Thomas and Elgin County have lost an incredible number of manufacturing jobs. We have highly skilled, adaptable labour that needs and wants full time employment. You may wonder what the situation in Canada’s first nations has to do with the loss of industry in our area, but I see a great potential to revitalize our economy while contributing to a resolution to the housing crisis in first nations throughout Ontario and across Canada: BUILD THEM HOMES!


* St Thomas is home to several well established builders and construction companies.
* St Thomas has several large manufacturing facilities sitting idle
* St Thomas has a large, skilled workforce that is looking for work
* St Thomas campus of Fanshawe College facilitates training of skilled workers and trades people.
* There are recently established supply companies in the area
* There is a rail link to and from St Thomas for bringing raw materials in and shipping product out.
* There is an eager, progressive mindset in the leaders of this community

Consider the possibility that the City of St Thomas, The County of Elgin, Private Industry, the Governments of Ontario and Canada and the First Nations of Ontario form a partnership in a venture to manufacture modular homes and adjunct service facilities (Water Treatment and Sewage Disposal) for First Nations throughout Ontario and across Canada.

The homes would be manufactured in St Thomas factories to current building standards complete with heating, plumbing, and electrical systems appropriate to the climate in northern Canada. The units would be designed and built respecting the culture and needs of the destination community. The units would be built in pieces, packaged and transported by rail to the nearest access point and then taken by land, sea or air the final distance to the community where they would be assembled and finished by local, tradespersons trained specifically assembly, operation and maintenance through Fanshawe programs either in St Thomas or at a campus established in their community. The homes will be compatible with the climate for which they will be located, and will be designed and constructed respecting First Nations cultural needs and sizes; the larger the number of occupants, the more modular sections would be provided to enlarge the structure as appropriate.

If Canada is able to provide immediate safe water supplies in international disaster situations such as Haiti, Africa or other third world countries, it is not unreasonable for us to be able to manufacture and deliver small drinking water systems to our first nations, and ensure they have trained and competent persons to operate those systems. The 2010 International Plowing Match held in St Thomas used municipal water. However a self contained water treatment system was placed on standby onsite to service the event should municipal water become unsafe to drink. That unit was housed in a transport container, and could have been put into service with very little notice.

St Thomas is now home to a plumbing parts manufacturer. We have the skilled workforce needed to manufacture small communal water treatment facilities. Our rail link provides access to the means of transporting the product the same way as the homes are transported. CBC reports 130 First Nations communities across Canada are under boil water orders. Modular water treatment units could be sent to the site, installed to serve small groups of homes or large communities; and again that work would be completed by local, trained tradespersons.

Small domestic sized sewage disposal units are available at considerable cost. However, a partnership as described above could work towards reducing the cost, manufacturing in St Thomas and transport units to the site of use. Larger modular systems could be designed to accommodate the input of sewage from a pod of homes in a community. They also can be transported as above, assembled, and made operational by local, trained tradespersons.

Ultimately the goal would be to see our First Nations and Inuit communities enjoy homes of equal caliber to the average homes that most Canadians enjoy. Studies have shown that once adequate housing is provided and individuals are supported with a safe and secure place to live and a place to work, social problems decrease. With First Nations housing, a wonderful opportunity has been presented that will benefit both the first nation community receiving the homes, and the community of St Thomas where they are manufactured. A successful operation based in St Thomas could easily become a model for similar projects in other provinces.

Financially, the cost is immense. Working as a cooperative venture could be a way to reduce costs. Formation of a manufacturing corporation funded by federal and provincial dollars, private institutions and industries with contributions from first nation’s governments and sweat equity by the recipient of the home, not unlike Habitat for Humanity, may be able to reduce costs. Bulk purchases of construction materials also will reduce costs. Financial incentives through tax relief could facilitate less cost and increased production. Spin off parts industries would further increase employment.

Considerable planning, negotiation and cooperation amongst all partners would be needed to achieve this lofty goal but it could be done. Our economy has been crippled. We are shamed by the health and social disasters unfolding throughout our First Nations and Inuit peoples, not to mention those living in poverty throughout the rest of Canada. I hope we as caring and compassionate communities, first nations and government organizations will begin to work together to ensure all Canadians enjoy a safe, comfortable home in which to raise our families and give back to society. One community such as St Thomas and area working together with First Nations elsewhere in Canada could be a catalyst to affect change. This week’s economic development funding announcement by the Ontario Government could be a means to seed a project, and develop a sustainable industry that would benefit a great many people for many years to come.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, there are 615 Indian Bands in Canada representing 50 nations as of the year 2010. That’s a lot of homes. The unemployment rate in the St Thomas area is over 9.2%, many of those lost jobs, skilled workers. The unemployment rate on first nations in Ontario is 14%. This is an opportunity to train workers who need training, create jobs for skilled workers and tradespersons, develop infrastructure for First Nations, renew the St Thomas manufacturing industry, and directly and indirectly alleviating many of the social ills that plague both St Thomas and the First Nations through programs that will help regain self esteem, and provide an opportunity for families throughout Canada to realize their dreams for prosperity.

I offer this suggestion with respect with the intention that we will see improved health, and education, improvement of social conditions and economic development and growth for both St Thomas and Elgin County and for the First Nations of Ontario and Canada.

One thought on “Thoughts on the potential for economic development between St. Thomas and First Nations of Ontario

  1. These two lines;
    “Financially, the cost is immense.”
    “If Canada is able to provide immediate safe water supplies in international disaster situations…”
    say quite a bit.
    It seems to be more important for Canada to give our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to a foreign Government, than it is to help people in our own country.


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