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Issue: 58 Section: Original Peoples Geography: West British Columbia Topics: housing

March 13, 2009

Home, Moldy Home

Victoria paper investigates West Coast Indigenous housing crisis

by Kim Petersen

TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF SNUNEYMUXW FIRST NATION (NANAIMO, BC)–Coming quickly on the heels of a seven-part exposé of an Indigenous housing crisis in Victoria-based newspaper Times Colonist, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Minister Chuck Strahl promised $50 million for Indigenous housing on British Columbia reserves. It is part of the $400 million over the next two years already committed to on-reserve housing.

Stahl noted, "Some communities can't access enough capital to build and renovate homes while others lack the capacity to manage the housing stock effectively." He added, "We are far from finished with this task."

Assembly of First Nations BC Chief Sean Atleo responded to the annoucement cautiously: "What this means is we're moving from talk."

He alluded to the informative "Native Housing Crisis" series from February 8-14 as having spurred the action.


The West Coast of BC is a very rainy, moist climate. This presents challenges for healthful housing. Poorly constructed houses, overcrowding, and lack of proper sanitation provide prime conditions for the growth of molds that pose health risks to the occupants.

Reporters Judith Lavoie and Lindsay Kines of the Times Colonist compellingly wrote that a glaring number of homes on reserves are ill-suited for habitation. In "Native Housing Crisis," they did convey a crisis; however, the series was scant on background information and presented a 'mainstream' perspective, stating that reserves are Crown land. It did not delve deeply into the fact that most of BC is unceded First Nations territory.

The series identified a shortage of on-reserve land for housing as a problem. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility for First Nations as well as a responsibility for Indigenous housing. Does the crisis compel the federal government to act?

"Native Housing Crisis" dispelled the myth that Indigenous peoples receive free housing. It noted that they receive a "grant" of between $20,000 and $40,000 per house.

On February 9, Times Colonist ran "Ugly reality of many reserves: Dirt and neglect" as a headline. Despite the "ugly reality" of "mess and uncleanliness on some reserves," the series pointed out how this overshadows serious issues, such as lack of incentives to maintain clean homes.

Lillian Jones of Snaw-Naw-As First Nation said, "There are run-down homes, and there are great homes. Unfortunately, run-down homes are more common. Dirty – now, that is a standard. Whose standard are we talking about and why is that an issue?

"The bigger picture," she said, "Is that First Nation people weren't born the way most are today. Today’s is a condition that is a result of gradual genocide. And, there are so many lies out there that First Nation people have their houses paid for, everything is paid for. Well, I'd love to invite the media out to say, hey, this is what is being paid for!"

"Native Housing Crisis" identified the reserve system to be at the core of the housing problem. It pointed to other contributing factors, such as the disrupted lifeways of Indigenous peoples; that assimilationist pressures are in place; and that the State fosters dependence in Indigenous peoples.

One solution the series pointed to is instilling a pride of ownership. However, the push to ownership might be contentious. KAIROS – a Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiative – finds the federal government promoting a municipalization of First Nation communities "designed to release the federal government from its fiduciary responsibility to maintain reserve infrastructure and housing."

Health complications such as allergies, asthma, respiratory illnesses and tuberculosis were cited as results of poor housing. BC's Indigenous health physician adviser, Dr. Evans, found substandard housing to be a major reason Indigenous peoples’ health is poor compared to other Canadians. "Poor housing means poor health," said Dr. Evans.

Access to funding is necessary. Repairs are necessary. Better-built housing is necessary. Tang Lee, an architecture professor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary, commented that government bodies are not responding adequately to recommendations made to improve shoddy, overcrowded housing and acknowledge its direct impact on the health of residents.

There was also bright news emerging from the Indigenous housing crisis. Kines reported how government money and a unique partnership between an Indigenous community, government, and contractor led to the construction of 30 new low-rent, mildew-resistant houses in Nanoose Bay. Snaw-Naw-As First Nation fronted $3 million for the project that rents for less than $400 a month. Jones praised her community and the integrity of the builder.

Also identified was the need for good housing inspectors. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) currently does not provide a list of recommended local housing inspectors for First Nations, nor does the department train community members to do housing inspections.

Jones said, "I guess that the government continues to be the way it's being because they hope that First Nations people will clean up their mess, and there will be no government accountability called to question."

In the final part of the series, solutions were proposed to the First Nations' housing crisis. John Duncan, parliamentary secretary to the minister for INAC, talked about an investment "to assist the transition of market-based housing." This sounds like acculturation. He announced a Conservative Party pledge of 25,000 new housing units over 10 years. Yet, Grand Chief Stewart Philips, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, stated the on-reserve housing shortage is now 20,000 units and growing at 4,500 units per year.

Doing the math, this solution does not augur the end of the Indigenous housing crisis anytime soon.

Kim Petersen is the Original Peoples editor at The Dominion.

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land grab Nipissing First Nation (on)

on Aug 12 2010 some first nation people in Nipissing FN received a letter extinguishing any rights or interests held on lands where many planned to build homes. The letter I received indicated I had until the end of the building season and I quote the letter"in order to retain your interest in this lot...it is imperative that you comply with the requirement to place a residential building upon the land within this building season."
two concerns why not send this letter out in April or May and is this an attempt to circumvent potential problems as more parts of Bill C-21 will be implemented in 2011.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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