Houses on reserves in northern Ontario are full of mold, overcrowded and aren’t built to last — the result of a paternalistic federal government designing prefabricated houses for First Nations, instead of them designing their own. In many communities, this has contributed to poor health and rampant suicide.
On Wednesday, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and Ryerson University announced an innovative new housing strategy that they hope will change federal policy, and eventually could allow First Nations to design their own homes through design charrettes. It’s the first of its kind in Canada, Dr. Shelagh McCartney, who leads Ryerson’s Together Design Lab, told VICE News.
It’s well known that there is a housing crisis on reserve, but the way it is defined and understood by communities versus governments “ultimately describes a different crisis,” McCartney explains.
NAN is a political organization that represents 49 First Nations spread across northern Ontario. The program is gathering data from each community in that territory, and plans to present it to federal and provincial governments to show them exactly what Indigenous people want from their housing. Federal funding is currently addressing needs based on the government’s own data, not on the community’s data, McCartney explained.
NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and McCartney are hoping funding commitments and policy change from the federal and provincial governments will follow — but they haven’t yet.
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In 2014, NAN declared a housing crisis in its territory. “There has been very little improvement since then,” Fiddler says.
According to the 2016 census and a NAN Infrastructure Summit Report, NAN households have an average of 4.8 people per home, while the number of people per household in Canada is 2.4. While only seven percent of homes in Canada are in need of major repair, that number is 49 percent in NAN territory.
Fiddler described the conditions in his own community, Muskrat Dam, where, similar to other reserves, prefab homes are hauled in over winter roads and assembled in the summer months. Because of the current funding levels, he says the communities have to go with the lowest bid. The result is “very cheap” materials that aren’t fire resistant, and deteriorate quickly.
Homes are often built on foundations of pressure-treated plywood on top of gravel. The ground underneath is muskeg, so the wood quickly deteriorates.
Fiddler had to move out of one of these prefab homes 20 years ago. “There was mold to the point you couldn’t step in certain spots in the house because your foot would go through the floor.”
While Muskrat Dam has a small population, Fiddler says overcrowding is a huge issue in other communities, like Attawapiskat, where a housing shortage in 2011 led to intervention by the Red Cross. With 3,000 people in that community, Fiddler says “we hear about situations where there are two families to a house.” That means there are up to 15 people living in a single home.
"Everything’s connected to housing."
Having healthy, culturally appropriate housing could go a long way to solving suicide and mental health issues in northern communities like Attawapiskat, Fiddler said. “Everything’s connected to housing.”
The new strategy aims to develop a tripartite housing accord between NAN, Ontario and Canada, with all parties recognizing the right to safe and healthy housing. It will create occupant-focused housing needs assessment tools to establish long-term housing plans. The designs will match the demographics of each community, and will look to use innovative materials. The strategy will also establish peer-support networks and support local housing experts to build capacity in northern communities.
Research by McCartney’s research team in 2016 and 2017 paved the way for the partnership, with their final report laying out criteria to evaluate housing for First Nations in northern Ontario. The partnership received a $200,000 grant to start piloting the evaluation process, and in June 2018, the NAN Chiefs-in-Assembly passed a resolution to expand the pilot to a full strategy.
VICE News asked what First Nations actually want from their housing. McCartney and Fiddler said they have done some engagement already on that, and people want healthy, long-lasting homes, but that every community is different. In the past, Indigenous Affairs made the mistake of designing the same type of home for every community, which caused a lot of the problems we see today.
In her TED Talk, McCartney says prefab houses used to come with booklets explaining how Indigenous people should live in their new homes — underlining that those houses weren’t intuitive or culturally appropriate.
“This idea of prototyping, we have to be wary of that,” McCartney told VICE News. “There is no one prototype house and no one solution.”
Under treaties between First Nations and the Crown, shelter was one of those treaty rights, Fiddler said; the federal and provincial governments have a responsibility to uphold that commitment to First Nations. He’s hoping to use the next federal election to secure funding commitments from the federal government. He has a meeting with Indigenous Services minister Jane Philpott in two weeks. There hasn’t been formal engagement with the new Ontario government yet, he said, but he is trying to set a date to sit down with Ontario minister of energy, mines, northern development and Indigenous affairs, Greg Rickford.
In August, Indigenous Services minister Philpott took the strange step of offering $30 million in prize money for a contest to help figure out what policy and funding changes were needed to fix housing on First Nations.
According to the 2016 census, one in four Inuit and First Nations people across Canada lived in homes in need of major repair — down only slightly from 2011.
If the strategy works, it could be exported to other communities.
“We’re willing to share the work and the results of this project with anyone who wants it,” Fiddler said.
Cover image of Teresa Kataquapit, 75, in her home which has been deemed not fit for human habitation in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat, Ont., on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press