Refugee and Indigenous families have been wearing winter coats and boots, huddling under blankets inside their Saskatoon apartment during much of the record cold snap after the heat in their homes broke.
The three-storey Appleby Drive building has been without central heat for most of the past 10 days as wind chill values outside reached –50. Residents were moved out Thursday to hotels after the fire inspector was called.
Advocates say the problem should have been fixed much sooner.
"It was very hard for them to keep warm. It felt like nobody cared," said Bwe Doh Soe, a local bank employee and volunteer for fellow Karen refugees who fled persecution in Southeast Asia. He offered to translate for some of the Karen apartment residents, who spoke to CBC News Saturday afternoon on condition their names were not used.
Residents say the heater began to cut out intermittently several days before Christmas. It was cold but manageable. They first raised concerns with the management of Calgary-based Mainstreet Equity Corp. Dec. 27 when it stopped completely.
Residents say they were given one space heater per unit. They say they were told it would be fixed right away and they should be patient. The small heaters didn't help, they said. A couple of residents left and moved in with relatives elsewhere in Saskatoon, but most had nowhere else to go, they said.
Management then told them the holidays were making it difficult to find experts and parts for the repairs. A second space heater was distributed, but again made little difference, they said.
Eventually, someone contacted the fire department. They said a fire marshal arrived Tuesday. The building was declared unsafe and residents were moved to various hotels Thursday.
Residents aren't sure when they'll be able to head home.
Company cites COVID-related delays
Saturday afternoon, CBC News went to the apartment in Saskatoon's Meadowgreen neighbourhood to see if repair work had begun. A sign on the front door said the building was closed and "no one is allowed inside until further notice."
A security guard answered the buzzer. He said he was the only one in the building and directed questions to the Mainstreet site manager for Saskatoon.
That manager referred questions to the company's Calgary office. They declined an interview request but emailed a response saying the "comfort and safety of our tenants is our highest priority."
They tried to fix the problem immediately, but "it was impossible to complete this repair within an ideal timeframe due to COVID-caused staffing shortages, supply chain delays, and continued extreme weather conditions."
They say they complied with local authorities and moved residents to the hotels, giving them gift cards and food.
"We regret and take any disruption in our customers' enjoyment of their homes very seriously," read the statement.
CBC News asked Mainstreet why it appeared to take more than 10 days to evacuate the residents, but no response was received.
Call fire department for help if needed
Saskatoon Fire Department assistant Chief Yvonne Raymer said all residents should feel safe and warm, and shouldn't hesitate to call them for help.
She said they weren't notified until Tuesday, but have been working with building managers. She said the task was complicated this week by a rear exterior door forced open, freezing other pipes.
Raymer said the fire department gets called often to check on apartment temperatures during cold spells, but this is the only building that required evacuation. The most recent update showed the temperature was almost at acceptable levels, and she said it shouldn't be long before residents can return.
Saskatoon Open Door Society CEO Ali Abukar said he understands the staffing and supply difficulties caused by COVID-19 and the bitter cold snap, but said no one in Saskatoon should be forced to endure those conditions.
Abukar said many refugees and low-income Indigenous residents feel they have no voice, and are afraid of consequences if they complain. Many landlords are trying hard to provide safe accommodations at a reasonable price, but others take advantage of marginalized tenants, he said.
"We can't put profit before people," Abukar said. "When your heat goes off, in weather like this, it's unbearable."