Implementing Effective Housing Policy for First Nations Peoples

March 19, 2024

In this article, we look to Indigenous recommendations on how governments and municipalities can improve housing policy for First Nations people in Canada in the context of supporting Indigenous-led solutions.

Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing in Canada

On-reserve and off-reserve in cities, in rural settings, and the North, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities have faced a critical shortage of adequate housing for decades. 

In 2021, Statistics Canada reported that Indigenous people were almost twice as likely to live in crowded housing and nearly three times more likely to live in a dwelling in need of significant repairs compared to non-Indigenous people. 

Some researchers estimate that 20 to 50 percent of the unhoused population in major urban areas are Indigenous, while others have reported a range of 11 to 96 percent. In February 2024, Federal Housing Advocate Marie-Josée Houle told APTN’s Nation-to-Nation that “in Saskatoon, an estimated 90 percent of people experiencing homelessness are Indigenous,” a rate also recorded in the northern communities of Whitehorse and Yellowknife.

The Assembly of First Nations estimated the on-reserve housing shortage at 85,000 units in 2011 before putting a $44 billion price tag on meeting shortages observed in 2022. 

Since 2008, the First Nations Market Housing Fund has strived to increase homeownership on First Nations lands. Since 2013, the Indigenous Housing Caucus at the Canadian Housing Renewal Association (CHRA Indigenous Caucus) has developed and provided Indigenous policy advice on housing and homelessness relevant to First Nations housing both off and on reserve.

The Role of Governments and Municipalities

While First Nations are directly responsible for providing and managing housing on reserve, the federal government is responsible for under-funding many of those measures. Off-reserve measures are often funded by a province, territory, or municipality.

Non-Indigenous agencies often evaluate construction, safety, and health regulation compliance related to housing. While the federal government is responsible for funding access to clean water on reserves, there are also varying agreements with municipalities regarding resourcing and accessing services.

Experts agree that the impact of funding for housing and maintenance can be maximized when the respective roles and responsibilities of First Nations and governments are understood.

Housing as a Right

In addition to Indigenous rights to housing outlined by treaties, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Inquiry), the Parliament of Canada affirmed that access to adequate housing is a human right when they passed the National Housing Strategy Act in 2019. 

Despite recognizing that distinctions-based solutions are needed to address housing disparities, there has yet to be an Indigenous-led approach to closing the gap and meeting the basic needs of Indigenous people.

Investing in Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing

While the CHRA Indigenous Caucus estimated in 2022 that it would cost $25 billion to build the 73,000 affordable units needed, the National Housing Council estimated $56 billion over ten years to meet Indigenous housing needs when reporting in 2023. 

The Caucus also offered that construction associated with building the new units over ten years could create almost 300,000 jobs and add $12.5 billion to provincial economies – and that funding new units as suggested could create savings of over $47 billion across the country. In the context of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, they proposed that an Indigenous housing strategy would also act as a catalyst to stimulate economic growth.

Following a proportionally meagre investment of $300 million in the 2022 Federal Budget, Budget 2023 announced a marginal $4.3 billion over seven years to build and repair housing in Indigenous communities and committed $4 billion over seven years to implement an Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy.

A For Indigenous, By Indigenous Approach 

In 2022, the CHRA Indigenous Caucus recommended annual funding of $2.3 million to support a distinctions-based, co-developed “For Indigenous, By Indigenous” strategy to fund urban, rural and Northern Indigenous housing. 

In January 2024, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) launched a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process on behalf of the Canadian government to establish an Indigenous-led National Indigenous Housing Centre.

Core Competencies

Many of the core competencies a For Indigenous, By Indigenous strategy would build have already been identified by Indigenous and non-Indigenous housing advocates. By providing an overview of some high-level areas a strategy will likely address, governments and municipalities may gain a sense of how their policies may be responsive to future models – and prepare their organizations now.

A Distinctions-Based Framework

The 2016 federal census estimated that 40% of First Nations people lived on reserve. The CHRA Indigenous Caucus estimates that nearly 80% of Indigenous households are living in urban, rural and northern (non-reserve) settings and that approximately 80% of Indigenous peoples are not represented in the current distinctions-based strategies. 

Whether on-reserve, off-reserve, urban, rural, or northern, each community has specific contexts that must be considered. For example, current federal government funding programs do not accurately reflect the costs and challenges of building quality homes in northern and remote communities. Of the 38,000 units that the CHRA Indigenous Caucus estimates represent the core housing gap, many are women-led – indicating that women’s perspectives will be overrepresented in designing the strategy.

Access to safe housing is a crucial component to preventing the death and disappearance of Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people due to gender-based violence. A key stipulation of the Inquiry’s Calls for Justice is that housing must be appropriate to geographic and cultural needs and available wherever the individual resides. 

An Indigenous strategy will focus on data, information, research and evaluation that digs deep into distinct needs. This includes federal-provincial evaluation agreements that require collecting Indigenous-specific data to measure impacts. 

🗒️ Reporting on the root causes of the critically high rates of Indigenous homelessness in urban communities must be led by urban Indigenous communities and service providers. All urban centres must fund locally-produced reports and recommendations or work with federal and provincial governments to secure that funding. This will provide data for community-specific, proportional funding. 

🗒️ Distinct approaches will focus on local needs. Municipalities are encouraged to build lateral relationships with nearby communities so that their needs are understood. Governments are encouraged to facilitate those relationships.

🗒️ The Inquiry found that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada. The “Indigenous-led low-barrier shelters, safe spaces, transition homes, second-stage housing, and services” required by the Inquiry must receive long-term sustainable funding immediately. If the government makes these desperately needed funds available, they will be used.

Flexibility

Pre-packaged strategies cannot honour the distinct needs of communities. Indigenous solutions will require many mechanisms and flexible pathways, or a “menu of options and approaches,” to meet requirements. For example, housing stock built with the federal government’s support would be supplemented by other housing options, such as market housing, and financing options, such as revolving loan funds.

🗒️ Anticipating bureaucratic barriers to honouring new pathways will ease expected transitions.

Co-Development

Welcoming an extensive array of communities, Indigenous governments, Indigenous organizations, and other stakeholders to share information and insights will help outline the strategy’s distinctions-based considerations. 

🗒️ As many agreements between reserves, municipalities and governments are ineffective, problematic, or due to expire, new deals must be developed in partnership. Internal work can be done to offer strategies responsive to the barriers local Indigenous communities have encountered.

Stakeholder Engagement

Due to the complexity of jurisdictions and responsibilities around Indigenous housing, municipal, provincial, territorial, and federal governments and organizations must be aligned and engaged in creating supportive processes and policies. This includes building awareness of treaty obligations, human rights obligations, the dire nature of housing shortages, how First Nations and Indigenous Peoples were forcibly displaced, and how systematic oppression creates and maintains barriers to the honouring fundamental human rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

🗒️ As most Canadians did not have access to appropriate education before the release of the TRC in 2015, employers can fill that gap by securing Indigenous-created training. Basic education on First Nations history is foundational to more housing-specific, nuanced training. 

Indigenous Self-Determination & Delivery

Support must be provided for Indigenous and First Nations-led management and delivery of readily accessible funding for housing. 

In addition to controlling the use of their funding, communities require structures and local capacity to build, manage and maintain housing stocks properly. In 2015, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples emphasized: “the importance of having skilled people in place to manage the housing stock, to incorporate practices to make the housing financially and environmentally sustainable, to maintain the housing units, and to educate community members on home maintenance. The Committee heard that funding for housing managers should be part of the core funding which Bands receive for housing.”

🗒️ Governments must be nimble in transferring funds to First Nations, and municipalities must be equipped to respond to how service agreement budgets may change. Capacity may be built to support Indigenous-led housing efforts with any mentorship or support needed in areas like environmental sustainability, construction management, housing management, and accounting specific to urban, rural, northern, and local communities.

Market-Based Rates

Affordable housing rents are often set by private market rents, as reported by the CMHC. With record-low vacancy rates, record-high average rent growth, and rent growth outpacing wage growth in 2024, it is likely that the approach will not recommend using local market rates to determine what should be considered affordable housing. Rent subsidies and refurbishments of existing Indigenous social housing units to protect existing tenants will be encouraged.

🗒️ Major cities have a duty to immediately house their large Indigenous populations, who are most vulnerable to being unhoused and are being criminalized for their situations. Basic human rights must be met while solutions are enacted. 

Holistic Rates

As the CMHA Indigenous Caucus expressed, “Indigenous housing providers in urban, rural and northern settings provide much greater value than just housing. They bring social services to influence the lives of their tenants in dignified and empowering ways.” The Ontario Federations of Indigenous Friendship Centres agrees that rental rates should consider “Indigenous perspectives on community development and social responsibility.”

Holistic Services

As one of the social determinants of health, housing must be approached in tandem with other determinants. To foster well-being and long-term success, partnerships to provide wraparound Indigenous services will be a factor. 

🗒️ The support of governments and municipalities is key to funding culturally appropriate health care, child care, mental wellness care, access to food, and community-building that must exist alongside affordable housing.  

Racism and Stigma

Stereotypes about Indigenous people are a significant barrier to securing safe and affordable housing in a market rent situation. Indigenous-led research or public awareness to reduce these barriers may be recommended.

Finally…

Governments and municipalities will play a key role in creating the conditions for Indigenous-led solutions to succeed. 

  • Steps to building this capacity include relationship building with Indigenous communities and supporting internal education initiatives. 
  • Immediate funding should be released for shelters and other safe housing for Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit and LGBTQQIA+ people. 
  • Free or low-cost housing options must be provided to unhoused urban Indigenous populations.
  • Indigenous-led research on urban Indigenous homelessness should be funded before its recommendation by an overall strategy. 
  • Municipalities and governments can identify internal responses to existing barriers, anticipate bureaucratic barriers to new processes, and plan for an increased need for mentorship and support capacity.
  • Budgets must consider funding for wraparound social services that exist where First Nations and Indigenous people dwell.