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Water Today Title November 25, 2017

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Updated 2016/5/8
First Nations Housing & Infrastructure - Part 2

Government Funding

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.

Canadian Mortgage and Housing (CMHC) fire statistics indicate that the First Nations per capita fire incidence rate is 2.4 times the rate for the rest of Canada. The death rate is 10.4 times greater; the fire injury rate is 2.5 times greater; and the fire damage per unit is 2.1 times greater.

The CMHC report, Fire Prevention in Aboriginal Communities ".. suggests that overcrowding and the inaccessibility of remote locations are two of the main reasons for the high incidence of fires in Aboriginal communities and the more severe consequences."

In Part 1 of our series on First Nation housing & infrastructure we also learned that while the lack of fire awareness and inadequate equipment contribute to the situation, housing - or the lack of adequate housing largely due to the absence of building codes and regulatory frameworks on reserve - is the root of the problem.

Yet, the Government of Canada (INAC) spends an estimated $280 million to support the housing needs of First Nations on reserve (of this amount, $152 million is provided by CMHC), and has earmarked $732 million over two years for 2016-17.

This sounds like a large amount, but according to First Nations across the country, it's not enough and it's spread too thin.

According to On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change an excellent report by the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - which was published with very little fanfare in June 2015 at the height of the Senate expenses scandal:
    There is widespread agreement among witnesses who appeared before the Committee that the way on-reserve infrastructure is funded does not work, and is not likely to work in the future without dramatic action. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC - (NOTE: the current government seems to have reverted to INAC, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) calculated that the cost of meeting the immediate infrastructure needs on reserve in 2013 was $8.2 billion, and is expected to increase to $9.7 billion over five years. The department concluded that, "if new Capital Funding is not an option, fundamental decisions will need to be made," concerning the amount of funding for on-reserve infrastructure and the role of the department in this area.

Keith Maracle President of the First Nations National Building Officers Association (FNNBOA) says that funding amounts may sound like a lot but by the time they reach the community they have considerably dwindled.

"I was around when Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister," he said. "I remember that he allocated $1 million for housing in 1979, but by time everybody had taken their cut, it came down to $500 per house".

Then there is the whole funding process. As anyone who has applied for funding knows, the process is long and the paperwork often overwhelming.

First Nations communities across the country told the Senate committee that the process of applying for funding from the First Nation On-Reserve Housing Program was challenging. Witnesses complained that there are often long delays between the submission of an application for housing, and the announcement of funding.

Delays in funding approvals can place enormous pressure on communities, since the allocated funds need to be spent within the fiscal year. The committee has heard that this process makes it difficult to organize construction particularly where the weather conditions make it almost impossible to start construction in the winter.

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There is a significant housing shortage on reserve and the existing homes in many communities are in very poor condition.

"There are approximately 108,000 housing units on reserve, and a survey of on-reserve housing conditions indicated that 37 per cent of those units needed major repairs and 34 per cent needed minor repairs. If you do the quick math, it indicates that approximately 40,000 units needed major repairs and 37,000 needed minor repairs," said Harold Calla, Executive Chair, First Nations Financial Management Board.

Harry Willmot, Senior Manager, Aboriginal Market Development, RBC Royal Bank told the Senate Committe:

"It's a huge crisis out there. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of homes need to be built, and many homes that I've seen are in dire need of repair. You can see it. You can see it first-hand. At the end of the day, it is improving. Are we catching up to fill that gap? I don't think we are."

For its part INAC reports that Government of Canada funding and the First Nations' own funding investment result in, on average, construction of about 1,750 new units a year and the renovations are about 3,100 units a year. At this rate it will take 23 years to address the AANDC (NOTE: the current government seems to have reverted to INAC, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada) estimate of the current housing shortage and 49 years to address the Assembly of First Nations' (AFN) higher estimate. In addition, it would take 25 years to renovate the units that currently need repair.

The absence of enforceable building codes on reserve has resulted in housing that deteriorates rapidly as well as unsafe living conditions for some people who live in First Nations communities. Building codes were not applied when much of the existing housing stock on reserve was built, which has contributed to the low quality of housing on reserve this problem persists today.

While these statistics are all pretty dire, FNNBOA s Keith Maracle is of the opinion that studies and media reports only focus on the small isolated communities or the very large and successful bands of over 2,000 people.

"There are a good number of mid-size bands out there that do what they have to do to survive. You never hear from them, they're not doing great but they're not doing bad, they do what they have to do to make it work," he said.

"What we hear over and over again is about the northern, isolated communities, where on-reserve population can be as low as 100 to 200 people, where there is no economy, and where it often comes down to one person to handle housing, maintenance and lands," he said.

"While big successful bands are held up as models, there is very little a band - with a rate of unemployment of 85%, where a loaf of bread can cost upwards of $7.00 and where there is no capacity - can do. They are simply overwhelmed. "

This sentiment is echoed in Chief Shining Turtle of Whitefish First Nation's comments to the Senate committee: "Northern housing demands need particular attention. Housing of quality in the North is expensive to build. Houses are expensive to operate, and they're very difficult to maintain. Anybody that's had an experience in Northern communities will know that. This is attributed to the high cost of transportation, energy, building materials, shortage of skilled labourers, a short construction season and severe climates. "

There is no cookie-cutter solution for First Nation housing, each band having its own set of issues and needs.
"I found that the major issue in the communities is a lack of listening to and respecting the people of the First Nations and very little consultation in developing various programs and systems, which don't grow from the people themselves but are in a sense designed and developed outside the community and pushed on the people as solutions that would be best for them," said architect Douglas Cardinal to the Senate committee.

For his part, Maracle hopes that the funding recently announced by the Liberal government will allocate more funds for on-site training and mentoring to help with housing and fire awareness in remote communities; in a program similar to the Circuit Rider Training Program for water operators. A trainer and mentor himself, Maracle has visited over 130 communities from Labrador to British Columbia since 1979.

"We have to send trainers on-site or there will be no improvement," he said.

On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program is not the only housing program for First Nations in Canada. In Part 3 and 4 we look at the Indian Act, own-source revenue (OSR) and the First Nation Market Housing Fund.

Related info

First Nation On-Reserve Housing Program - INAC

Fire Prevention in Aboriginal Communities- CMHC

Interim Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - February 2105

On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change
Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - June 2015

First Nation quality of life, housing & infrastructure - Part 1

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