Editor’s note: This story was updated at 05:40 p.m. July 26, 2019 to include a response from the Department of Health and Social Services.
A recent reported outbreak of bed bugs at public housing units in Fort Simpson earlier this month has many in the village raising the alarm about an ongoing problem with the invasive pests, despite claims by the NWT Housing Corporation that the issue has largely been resolved by recently purchased heating equipment.
Tom Williams, CEO and president of the NWT Housing Corporation (NWTHC) admitted this week that bed bug infestation has been a growing problem in public housing, mostly in the southern NWT over the last few years. The corporation was able to respond and treat reports of bed bugs in the Fort Simpson “nine-plex,” where individual tenants rent, and in “the clusters,” where seniors stay.
“Because (bed bugs were) starting to become more frequent, we managed to purchase our own equipment,” said Williams, adding that the July outbreak at the Stanley Isaiah Seniors Home was the second such incident there this year. “We got people trained, including the local maintenance staff to be able to use our equipment.”
Williams said a report that came back from his staff earlier this week showed that the problem at the two largest public housing units in Fort Simpson was rectified.
“A report I got late last week stated that everything seems to be back to normal,” he said. “So I think we resolved the issue.”
Williams said the reason he’s confident about the corporation’s ability to address the issue is because of the efficiency of the treatment process itself. Rather than scheduling time for an exterminator like Edmonton-based Orkin Canada to come North, extreme heating equipment purchased over the last year has meant shorter treatment times and less disruption to tenants.
“The word or rumours that have been put out in the public is that we have to relocate people (tenants) for six to eight weeks, but that is not the case,” Williams said. “It is a four-hour treatment. You ask (the tenants) to leave the premises for four hours and ask them to move everything away from the walls and (our trained people) go in and treat it.
“The next day they get a vacuum and vacuumed up any of the dead bed bugs and then it is monitored on a regular basis to see if they come back.”
Local Housing Authority disbanded
Last week the corporation disbanded the Fort Simpson Local Housing Authority. More than one of the sources that News/North reached this week insisted that the corporation is under-stating the severity of the bed bug problem.
“The NWTHC is trying to cover up a public health issue that is affecting elderly/disabled Metis/First Nations residents in the two largest public housing complexes in Fort Simpson (nine-plex and clusters),” stated an email from one individual.
According to the source, the most recent bed bug problem stretches back to last fall when there were “some” units heat treated by the housing corporation due to the presence of the parasite. However, between January and March, “several sightings were reported, with some units deemed infested due to 1,000s of bedbugs,” the source stated.
According to the source, the Fort Simpson Housing Authority (FSHA) manager ordered all public housing units to be heat treated between April and May, but this was done one unit at a time.
“In June, bed bugs were reported again in the clusters, so the FSHA manager called an emergency inter-agency meeting,” the source stated, noting that this meeting included representatives from the Health and Social Services Authority, Liidlii Kue First Nation, Northwest Territories Housing Corporation, Dehcho First Nation, Metis Nation, a seniors’ advocate, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, and department officials from the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services. “This was to inform the community of this impending disaster. Neither minister (Alfred Moses nor Glen Abernethy) attended or sent a representative.”
The source stated that at this meeting, a decision was made by the FSHA that the best course of action was to evacuate all 40 residents occupying the nine-plex and clusters buildings “to heat treat, clean and discard of all mattresses/couches.
In an email response from the Department of Health and Social Services (HSS), department officials denied the minister had been invited to any meeting. The email also stated HSS “hasn’t received any complaints regarding bed bugs in the Fort Simpson area.” However, in an email obtained by News/North dated July 12, 2019, addressed to HSS minister Glen Abernethy and housing minister Alfred Moses, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson wrote: “Please be advised the bedbugs issue is very much alive and well unfortunately.”
“The NWTHC was approached for assistance in funding/co-ordinating this effort, which was supposed to occur in July,” the source stated, adding that this would have involved moving the residents to another location as well as providing clean clothes, cots, meals and new mattresses or couches until they were able to return to the units.
“The whole process (was) estimated to take four to eight weeks for both locations. NWTHC has not provided any assistance in this matter and their senior staff … even publicly deny there is a problem.”
More bed bugs discovered in other units
Yet another public housing complex on Antoine Drive was discovered to have bed bugs in mid-July, the source wrote. “Since July 17, 2019 bed bugs have been confirmed in several units in the clusters with at least three being infested,” the source stated.
Yet, as of early July, the corporation was taking the stand that all bed bug issues were dealt with in Fort Simpson, that all units in the seniors complex were treated and that there was no need to evacuate any of the units for longer than the four hours because of the effectiveness of the treatment.
Muaz Hassan, a board member with the Fort Simpson Housing Authority, who was among those the local housing authority board disbanded last week, said it’s well known in the community that the bed bug issue is more pervasive than what the corporation is saying.
“It’s a big issue,” Hassan said. “The corporation denies that we have a bed bug issue.”
Thompson said he has spent weeks corresponding with both Abernethy and Moses. Thompson was informed earlier last week that the problem was rectified. He said he realizes that some in the community, including the recently dismissed local housing manager and housing authority board members, dispute this point.
“My understanding is when I talked to the manager when we had the (June) meeting, I was advised that bed bugs were still an issue and that (the housing authority) were working on a plan and reached out to organizations like the NWT Senior Society,” Thompson said. “All I know is that as of (early this week) I received an email from the minister that the bed bug issue has been addressed.”
Thompson said the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services has begun providing communications about the health implications of bedbugs. According to a document on the department’s web page called Bedbugs the red-brown, oval-shaped insect does not carry disease, but does feed off of human blood. They can easily be transferred through clothing and furniture and tend to bite at night while hiding during the day.