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Tackling the on-reserve housing crisis

By Joseph Quesnel
web posted December 19, 2011 

Canada is not alone among advanced industrial countries in which indigenous communities' housing is in serious crisis. The housing crisis in Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation in Northern Ontario, only speaks to one of the worst situations.

From a column that appeared in June 2010 in the Australian, a major broadsheet in that country, we could read:

"Although the right to own your own home is fundamental to other Australians, on indigenous lands public housing is the only option. It has failed. By 2007, public housing had provided only 13,000 dwellings for more than 22,000 remote households. Most houses are sub-standard, dilapidated and crowded."

Sound familiar? The column was written by researchers with the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian pro-free market think tank.

But one does not need necessarily to advocate the free market to understand that First Nations face unique political barriers to home ownership and to rental housing conditions on reserve. The Indian Act limits seizure of land on-reserve so First Nations are limited in accessing mortgages or housing loans. Housing problems on reserves are often the result of band politics.

It is difficult to argue that the government has no role in social housing or in trying to make housing more available, but it is unsustainable to argue the permanent remedy is government-funded, social housing for all band members. Housing needs are met in the mainstream economy and the optimal mix is primarily market-driven housing, with limited social housing options.

Central to the problem is the attitude that the federal government is solely responsible for First Nation housing. Given current birth rates for First Nation communities, the federal government will never be able to make up for growing housing demands.

Granting mortgages or providing property rights to First Nations is not an over-night solution. Housing ideally comes with economic development. For many remote First Nations, paying rent or maintaining payments for a home would be a challenge. For the most remote fly-in communities like Attawapiskat, it is doubly challenging since the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board tells us that low income and unemployment are the worst in these locations.  

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, in its 2007 report on Aboriginal economic development, recognized that remote location was a significant barrier for many bands. Major Economic activity in this country is urban-based and reserves primarily are rural. Part of the solution is bringing bands to the cities if cities cannot go to the bands. The committee said a solution is an urban strategy where bands work with Ottawa to acquire lands in urban areas. The Senate report mentions Membertou First Nation, a band in Nova Scotia, as an example of a successful urban strategy where they developed an urban base in Halifax to pursue joint ventures with major corporations. This creates revenue and jobs for the community. It could also supplement a housing program.

First Nations need to be liberated from the shackles of the Indian Act and granted title to their lands and resources so they could fund their own services, in whole or part, and acquire the ability to enter into joint ventures with private companies.

Finally, Aboriginal activists need to acknowledge housing issues are not solely resource problems that are the fault of Ottawa. Housing is also a political problem on many reserves. Ottawa may provide the funding, but housing allocation decisions are made at the band level and these allocations are often politicized. In 2008, the Institute on Governance released a paper on First Nation housing. They conducted interviews in communities where housing was successful and all of them said the same thing: they ran housing like a business. Governance policies should separate housing regimes from politics to ensure rent is strictly enforced, houses are built to code and inspected, and well-motivated staff run housing programs. Well-governed housing regimes encourage potential partners to invest in on-reserves housing.

Questions are being raised about funds coming into Attawapiskat. Apparently, the band council had access to other streams of revenue that some argue could have dealt with the most serious housing problems. An independent audit will likely provide answers to these questions.

Every year the Frontier Centre conducts an Aboriginal Governance Index where we ask grassroots First Nations about governance and services. We continue to hear stories from band officials, including heads of housing authorities, about how housing programs are still subject to political meddling. The housing issue is wrapped up within governance challenges for many bands.

There is no magic wand for the housing problem, but we have to start somewhere. ESR

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy where he writes mainly about Aboriginal and property rights issues.

 

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