10 Things You Need to Know About On-Reserve Housing in Canada

July 02, 2024

First Nations Housing and the myriad of complicated issues surrounding it are what the First Nations Market Housing Fund contends with every day. As a result, we thought it would be a good time to discuss the causes of housing inadequacies, barriers to solving the problem, and solutions that First Nations hold to safe, secure and sustainable on-reserve housing.

1. A booming population is amplifying a century-long crisis

Although overcrowding and a lack of housing have been huge issues on reserves for a century, it took a lot of pressure for Canada to acknowledge the crisis. The deficit has widened in the decades that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), international human rights bodies, and others have raised the alarm. Indigenous people are the fastest-growing population in Canada, growing by 9.4% between 2016 and 2021.

The AFN estimated the on-reserve housing shortage to be 85,000 units in 2011. The 2016 census reported that almost a quarter of First Nations people living on reserve occupied a dwelling that needed major repairs – and that First Nations people with registered or treaty status were overrepresented at a rate of three times within that groups as compared to non-status people living on reserve, highlighting race as a marginalizing factor. In 2022, the AFN put a $44 billion price tag on meeting on-reserve housing shortages.

2. Badly constructed on-reserve housing is the result of federal policies

In the 1950s, the federal government supported investment in new homes, ignoring repair to existing homes. Throughout the subsequent decades, the government would ship materials and building plans to reserves based on designs popular in the urban south.

Building and safety codes are provincial, leaving reserves vulnerable to paying for badly constructed housing. The lack of national standards for housing insulation or energy efficiency until 2015 also contributed to the disparity between the homes built on and off reserve.

The government initiated multiple national strategies in the 20th century that failed to address the rolling housing crisis on reserves. Standardizing southern models that lack responsiveness to environmental and cultural needs and failing to provide enough resources for Nations to form and enforce building and safety codes are two reasons that legislated federal dependence doesn’t work for First Nations.

3. Removal of housing from First Nations authority is still a cause of substandard construction

Removing financial authority from First Nations communities and leadership is a leading cause of historical and continued construction substandard of homes. The Indian Act of 1867 – mainly installed unqualified Indian Agents to supervise and manage on-reserve housing and funds. These Agents did not have a meaningful stake in the long-term socioeconomic outcomes of communities, were not held accountable for their wellbeing, and had no incentive to perform their duties well.

Today, First Nations lack autonomy in repairing and constructing homes because they receive specific envelopes with instructions for how the money will be used. While non-profit housing construction may be an option, some leaders say that this construction is done with less care and attention than for-profit projects. Projects in rural, remote and northern locations may need help sourcing local contractors and for federally-funded housing; additional certification is required. Appropriately certified contractors from outside the community may not extend their whole duty of care for these projects to devote more time to lucrative projects.

4. Infrastructure presents an additional challenge to fulfilling housing needs on remote reserves

The additional costs of building and maintaining homes in remote areas include bringing in certified outside contractors who may require frequent flights and accommodations, sourcing and shipping large and heavy materials, and funding necessary housing infrastructure and services such as septic and water systems, access roads, electrification, waste management, and fire protection. Although these necessities are chronically underfunded at the federal level, remote First Nations cannot share the cost of services with neighbouring municipalities.

5. Accessible home insurance needs to be made widely available to on-reserve homeowners

Lack of sufficient hydrant access or firefighting services may also be a factor in finding home insurance, which is already challenging to source for homes on reserve. Proof of land ownership may be difficult to produce, and the coverage options available may be limited and expensive. The First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA) has taken its first steps towards a non-profit Indigenous owned insurance program and with climate disasters disproportionately affecting on-reserve homeowners, home insurance will continue to be a key factor in communities’ security.

6. Excess mould growth is a health hazard encouraged by overcrowding

Health research in 2012 showed that nearly half of the homes on reserves in Canada contained mould at levels linked to high rates of respiratory and other illnesses in residents. Given that rates of overcrowding remain high and contribute to excess humidity and moisture in homes, mould continues to be an alarming health risk associated with a lack of affordable housing. Insects can feed on mould, too, increasing the risk of infestation and associated human reactions.

In Nations where water is unsafe, the need to boil water frequently for household use creates a moisture-rich environment for mould to develop and thrive.

7. Appropriate housing is critical to encouraging good lifelong health and keeping families together

First Nations children are precious to communities and disproportionately affected by respiratory infections, also facing elevated risks of long-term lung diseases after severe infections. A multi-study review by the World Health Organization says that the evidence assessed suggested a moderate to high likelihood that reducing crowding would reduce the risk of respiratory diseases – and a high likelihood of reducing the risk of tuberculosis.

Overall, children’s environments have a huge impact on their development. The stress of overcrowding can disrupt learning, and deteriorated conditions associated with overcrowded homes may affect self-esteem. Children living in inadequate housing are more likely to be at risk of infections and face mental health barriers, so better conditions may improve their lifelong health.

Overcrowding can also result in apprehension by child welfare authorities, profoundly impacting families and continuing systems of harm experienced during removal to Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the Millennial Scoop.

8. Supporting seniors to stay in the community creates opportunities for housing fulfillment

Elders are also precious to communities’ well-being, and many have negative experiences of being removed from their communities by colonial systems. While it’s essential to keep elders close, group care may not be available in the community or in homes that suit their needs and abilities. Some cannot maintain their homes or live in bigger houses than they need, resulting in the deterioration of existing homes and missed opportunities to redistribute housing based on need.

9. First Nations people are ingenious at inventing and incorporating new housing technologies

The engineering of the teepee, from its smoke ventilation to the sturdy wind resistance of prairie forms, is an excellent example of ancient Indigenous technology. Generations of Indigenous people used the materials of their regions to meet the needs of the community and environment, such as portability, climate responsiveness, and communal living.

In the late 19th century, Europeans encouraged Indigenous people to adapt traditional dwellings into what they felt were more “civilized” homes. Some embraced their new technologies in the West, using European inventions like glass windows and door hinges. Many adapted European designs to support multi-family homes, removing divisions between rooms and minimizing furniture so that large gatherings could still be held inside.

Today, communities are reclaiming culturally appropriate and sustainable housing through innovative projects and partnerships.

10. Homes are an expression of relationships to self and community

Living spaces reflect how people meet basic needs, find comfort, and interact. A home’s condition can significantly impact how people feel about themselves and support expressing who they are to others. While on-reserve housing may look colonial or in disrepair from the outside, the homes are full of spirit, richness, and boundless value that deserve the support of safe, secure and sustainable shelter.

First Nations people have the skills and knowledge to adapt dwellings to meet human, environmental, and cultural needs. It’s crucial to health and well-being for communities to decide what this looks like and be well-resourced to finance, develop, and build these homes and repair those in need.