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What Would a National Indigenous Housing Strategy Look Like?

Firstly, it would be Indigenous led and administered, according to those we asked.

By Katie Hyslop 22 Nov 2016 |

Katie Hyslop reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

2016-17 funders of the Housing Fix are Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., in collaboration with Columbia Institute. Funders of special solutions reporting projects neither influence nor endorse the particular content of our reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact solutions editor Chris Wood here.

Indigenous people, particularly on reserves, suffer some of the worst shelter in the country today. Inadequate housing contributes to mental and physical health problems, poor educational outcomes, family conflict, outright homelessness, and even the apprehension of children by child welfare workers.

But specific housing problems tend to be unique to their location and Indigenous nation. That’s left many of those working to provide something better concerned that the federal government’s ongoing development of national strategies to deal with housing problems both on and off reserve could lose the nuances and differing needs of Metis, First Nation, and Inuit communities.

To mark today’s release of the “What We Heard” report from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) national housing strategy consultations, The Tyee reached out to Metis, First Nation, and Inuit organizations to ask: if there were a National Indigenous Housing Strategy, what should it include?

First Nations on-reserve

Depending on who you ask, First Nations reserves across the country are anywhere from 35,000 to 85,000 housing units short of the number needed.

According to the Assembly of First Nations, nearly one-quarter of First Nation adults living on reserve were in overcrowded households in 2013. Forty per cent of all houses on reserves need major repairs; another 34 per cent need minor repairs. And with one of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the country, reserve communities face even worse housing conditions unless supply catches up to need.

One reason for the shortfall, the AFN maintains, is that CMHC and the federal department for Indigenous and Northern Affairs have been falling down on the job. A spokesperson for the Assembly pointed to the federal First Nations Market Housing fund, introduced by the Conservative Harper government and managed by CMHC with the promise of building 25,000 new, Indigenous-owned homes within 10 years. Now in year nine, the AFN says it has financed 120.

With that failure in mind, the national assembly has a long-term goal of seeing responsibility for on-reserve housing and infrastructure entrusted directly to regional and provincial First Nations-run organizations instead. It argues that would ensure no housing is built without other required infrastructure such as roads, power, safe water and sanitary hookups.

Their model is the way handled in Native American communities in the United States, where the U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development funds tribal organizations directly to build housing.

The AFN membership passed a resolution in support of allowing First Nations-led institutions to receive and dispense federal money for housing and infrastructure, as well as arms-length national oversight of these bodies by the Assembly.

The regular federal budget allocation of around $255 million for on-reserve housing, and an additional $416.6 million pledged by the Liberal government to be distributed over 2016-18, needs to be boosted to $600 million a year and made semi-permanent, the AFN says, in order to build and service the roughly 100,000 new homes required for replacement and reducing overcrowding over the next 25 years.


Housing for many in Inuit Nunangat, the region encompassing the three territories and parts of Northern Quebec and Labrador where 70 per cent of Inuit people live in Canada, is no better than on First Nations reserves. The majority of Inuit, whose average income is too low to make ownership affordable, live in social housing.

As of 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, an estimated 40 per cent were overcrowded. A third lived in housing needing major repairs. One reason: houses designed for warmer weather in the south don’t last as long in the extreme climate of Canada’s north. In Nunatsiavut, Labrador, houses require repairs just two years after construction.

In 2012, the National Aboriginal Health Organization estimated Nunatsiavut needed $32 million to fix its substandard, overcrowded and unsafe housing issues, but was receiving just $2 million a year from the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

The Nunavut government estimated that as of 2015 its people faced a 3,000-unit shortfall in social housing. To address it, Nunavut estimated it would need to double its annual spending on social housing from $135 million to $272 million of its $1.7 billion overall budget.

The Tyee reached out to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit advocacy organization, to ask about housing needs but did not hear back by deadline.

The organization lists improved housing as an objective in its published 2016-19 Strategy and Action Plan, but the document is scant on details of its plans to work with governments to increase construction and repair funding, organize a national Inuit housing forum, and advocate for a National Inuit Housing Program.


Of all Canada’s Indigenous groups, the Metis, who mainly live in provinces west of Quebec, are doing best in terms of housing conditions and affordability.

As of 2011, 65 per cent of Metis owned their homes, compared to nearly 70 per cent of non-Indigenous people, and one-third had paid off their mortgages. That same year nearly 87 per cent of Metis people either had housing that met all three of CMHC’s housing standards — adequacy, suitability, and affordability — or had enough income to afford housing that did.

Only 13 per cent lived in inadequate housing, and another 15 per cent were considered in ‘core housing need’, meaning they had to pay more than 30 per cent of their income for housing, compared to 12 per cent of non-Indigenous households living in core housing need.

Despite this relatively rosy picture, the Metis National Council, the national representative body for Metis people in Canada, identified several unresolved issues in its submission to CMHC’s listening initiative. They include:

Specific funding directly to Metis housing authorities, on the same lines that the AFN is seeking;

Maintaining social and rental Metis housing stock;

Increasing home ownership further through tools like a Metis Homeownership Fund;

Developing a Metis Urban Non-Profit Housing Program to expand rental and social housing in cities, as well as a separate program to do the same in rural and remote areas;

Increased funding for renovations and new construction geared to seniors and people with disabilities.

The Metis-specific funding and programming are keys to prevent repeating housing mistakes of the past, argues William Goodon, whose title is Minister: Housing and Property Management, with the Manitoba Metis Federation. It echoes many of the same wishes as the National Council.

As it has been ‘til now, Goodon said, “when the federal government comes up with an idea for Indigenous housing, they talk to the provinces.” Then, in his experience in Manitoba, the province spends any federal money without consulting Metis people on their actual priorities and needs.

“The province has its own priorities which may or may not be in sync with the feds, which may or may not be in sync with the Metis,” Goodon said. “So one of the things we want is that there be a direct relationship between the federal government and the Manitoba Metis Federation.”

Off-reserve Indigenous housing

Over 70 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada live off reserve today. And as of 2006, one in five of their households was in core housing need. Indigenous off-reserve incomes that same year were just 83 per cent of what other Canadians brought in.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which represents off-reserve Indigenous people in Canada, is looking for support and a degree of independence similar to what the Metis National Council is seeking: federal funding for off-reserve Indigenous housing managed and delivered by CAP or another off-reserve Indigenous housing authority; more money for both rental construction and for subsidies; and improved access to home ownership programs.

But needs also vary by region, says Congress National Chief Robert Bertrand, and solutions must reflect that.

“Not every province has the same problem as Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver,” he said. “That’s why every one of our [provincial] affiliates would have to sit down with their people and figure out what exactly would work in their particular area.”

Like the Assembly of First Nations, CAP would like to provide national oversight of local or provincial housing programs, though it is open to federal oversight as well.

A court ruling last spring, Bertrand notes, gave new legal force to demands for better off-reserve Indigenous housing. In its Daniel’s decision last spring, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that non-status Indigenous people, specifically Metis and off-reserve First Nations, are “Indians” within the meaning of Canada’s original founding law: the federal Constitution Act of 1867.

Although Ottawa has maintained the ruling doesn’t automatically open on-reserve housing funds to people living off-reserve, Bertrand said, “We know we are now the federal government’s responsibility.”

“But what does that give us compared to an on-reserve Aboriginal [person]? We don’t know. We will be organizing meetings in the coming months to find out exactly what our grassroot members want, and with that we will be able to start negotiations with the federal government.”

Canada’s umbrella housing lobby

The Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, which represents social housing providers, stakeholders and activists (and disclosure, with whom Tyee Solutions Society has partnered to present dialogue opportunities for housing stakeholders) has submitted ideas to improve off-reserve Indigenous housing. They include:

An Indigenous housing strategy with resources in every future federal capital housing program earmarked specifically for people living off-reserve;

Establishing a permanent trust solely for off-reserve urban and rural Indigenous housing, to provide capital and operational funding;

Increase funding to social service organizations specifically for off-reserve Indigenous people;

Consult with Indigenous housing leaders before the regular meetings of federal and provincial housing ministers;

Guarantee at least one Indigenous member on CMHC’s board of directors;

Implement the 92 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What is clear behind all of these groups’ hopes and expectations from a new national Indigenous housing strategy, is that in order to adequately address decades — even centuries — of neglect, something very much more is called for than just “more of the same.”  [Tyee]

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