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Water Today Title November 24, 2017

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By Jessica Lemieux

On March 30, 2016, nine people, three generations of the same family, including one baby and two toddlers, perished in a house fire in Pikangikum.

In Part 1 & 2 of our series on First Nation Housing and Infrastructure, we learned about quality of life for First Nations Communities and the lack of funding for housing. In Part 3 we will discuss housing and infrastructure issues – such as the re-allocation of government funds, as well as available national funds, such as the First Nations Market and Housing Fund.

According to the Senate Report, On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change, from June 2015, part of the problem with First Nations Communities to meet housing and infrastructure needs, is that funding from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) has been capped at 2%, which has not kept up with inflation and population growth. As a result, the cap has created a large funding gap in on-reserve programs and services, including social development and infrastructure. As a result of this significant funding gap, First Nations Communities have been required to prioritize and reallocate funds to keep up with other core needs. According to departmental documents, “from 2006 to 2012, approximately $505 million was reallocated from infrastructure to address needs in others program areas, such as education and child welfare services."

The Senate report also discusses an absence of enforceable building codes on reserve, which has resulted in unsafe living conditions and rapidly deteriorating homes. The low quality housing stock for many homes on reserve – a problem that still persists today – is a result of building codes not being applied, which contribute to the unsafe conditions that leave residents vulnerable to fire deaths. Vincent Genereaux of the Prince Albert Grand Council said:

    Probably fifty per cent of our fire deaths can be attributed to wood burning systems. It’s not that we inspected them wrong. It’s because they don’t tell us they’re putting them in. They purchase equipment themselves, and there’s something missing usually. We find that out in the investigation part.

According to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s Cost Drivers and Pressures – The Case for New Escalators, from June 2013, the infrastructure gap is approximately 8.2 Billion. According to the report – along with the need for new capital funding to cover the 8.2 infrastructure gap – the allocation of money away from infrastructure must end and a new escalator of 3% must be applied and compounded annually. There is also a need for major repairs to existing reserve homes as well as a need for $75 million in emergency management.

Another issue with housing and Infrastructure in First Nations Communities seems to be the lack of enforcement of building codes. The First Nations Housing and Building Crises: Management of the Change Process, from March 30, 2013, addresses some of the primary issues with the National Building Code (NBC):

  • The NBC provides for minimum standards and does not necessarily reflect the construction practices in remote or northern communities.
  • There is a lack of technical specifications on how the NBC and other housing standards should be applied in the communities.
  • Contractors often use materials that would be unacceptable elsewhere or even prohibited. There was the case where furnaces made by a particular company did not meet the standards and were deemed unsafe. These furnaces, however, were eventually installed in homes in an FN community.
  • Contractors are left to determine housing standards and construction practices for a particular community. No clear leadership is provided by the communities or any agency, as this information appears to be unknown.

The First Nations Housing Market is the first national fund created to support financing arrangements for housing on reserve and settlement lands. The Fund builds on the work of the Assembly of First Nations and the successes of innovative communities in order to bring more market-based housing to First Nations, while doing so in a manner that respects reserve lands are communally owned.

The Fund was developed to facilitate and broaden the range of housing options for residents of First Nations communities, in hopes that they may have the same opportunities and housing choices as people in non First Nation Communities. The First Nations Housing Market’s website discusses that there are several unique barriers in regards to the existence of home ownership and rental housing markets on-reserve. These barriers consist of factors such as the unique land tenure regime on-reserve, the remote location of many on-reserve communities and limited access to private financing in the form of mortgages or housing loans. The site states one of the main impediments to market-based housing as “a lack of access to financing for housing on-reserve because of the Indian Act provisions which limit seizure of property on-reserve to a First Nations community or its members. As a result mortgage security is not available.” The Indian Act states, under Possession of Land:

    20 (1) No Indian is lawfully in possession of land in a reserve unless, with the approval of the Minister, possession of the land has been allotted to him by the council of the band.

These provisions mean that mortgage security is not available, which can make it difficult for First Nations members to acquire home protection within their communities. The Fund’s website discusses that First Nation Communities must meet certain criteria to obtain these loans. Earl Commanda, Program Manager for Credit Enhancement and Capacity Development of the First Nation Housing Market, was about to offer some additional insight and information. Commanda said,
    There is an application to fill out with questions in regards to the three pillars – good financial management, good governance and community commitment to approach. When we talk about good financial management, we mean we want to make sure that they have the policies and people in place to manage a larger housing portfolio. When we talk about good governance we mean we like to see that there’s a separation between administration and chief and council, that they have policies in administration, conflict of interest rules and how well they are operating their housing program currently. When we talk about community commitment we assist first nations in identifying if they are mortgage ready and are they able to look after the house once they’ve built it.

    We opened our doors in 2008 and right now we have 210 First Nations that have made applications to the Fund, to commit to their program across the country.. BC is leading the way with 75 First Nations, such as the community in Kamloops, which has about a dozen loans. A lot of communities who have been approved have not taken advantage of our program. That’s our struggle, in terms of when they get financing to [build] housing, there isn’t a lot of band members or community leaders coming forward with proposals to the lender saying that they want to build a house.

    As the fund generates interest – which is about 40 million so far – minus the cost to operate the program, 50% of the interest goes to the fund, the other 50% we are making available for capacity health and support to help strengthen those 3 pillars [good financial management, good governance and community commitment to approach]. So although we have identified some of their weaknesses, we’re also here to help people strengthen them – which can be anything from finance administration, improvement to updating housing policies. We have spent about 60 million dollars since we opened our doors on capacity help, but now with 210 first nations coming on board its difficult to make the same amount of resources available, as they’re being stretched very thin.

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