8 Things You Need to Know About On-Reserve Housing Issues

December 01, 2022

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Little Grand Rapids, First Nation reserve in Manitoba, Canada. Photo: Shutterstock

Did you know that adequate housing was recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Did you know almost one in six Indigenous people lived in a home in need of major repairs in 2021 [1], a rate almost three times higher than for the non-Indigenous population, and more than 17 percent of Indigenous people lived in crowded housing?

Those stats are not for a developing country. Those stats are for Canada, which holds the 9th spot in the top 25 economies in the world in 2022. In 2014, James Anaya, then-Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, noted that housing in First Nation communities had “reached a crisis level.”

On-reserve housing situations vary from community to community. While some communities do have an adequate supply of good-quality homes, that is not the norm. Generally speaking, those communities with their own source of revenue and high employment have good-quality housing. This article is about the issues prevalent in the communities that don’t have the benefit of own-source revenue or high employment.

Some background on the federal government’s role in on-reserve housing:

“In the 1960s, what was then Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) implemented a housing program that provided subsidies to assist with home construction and renovation on reserves. A 1982 evaluation of this program concluded that by then, the federal government’s “role in the delivery of houses was … residual.” In 1996, the government developed the housing policy that is currently in place, known as the On-Reserve Housing Policy. Communities that choose not to opt into the On-Reserve Housing Policy continue to operate under the 1960s subsidy program. Today, the federal government provides on-reserve housing support to First Nation communities primarily through funding and programs offered by AANDC and by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). [3] Note: AANDC is now Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs and Crown-Indigenous Relations.

The lack of adequate on-reserve housing has many contributing factors and many repercussions. Here are 8 things you need to know about on-reserve housing issues.

  1. Indigenous Peoples are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population. The challenge of supplying housing for an expanding community puts immense pressure on band councils. The high birth rate and the shortage of housing often result in extreme overcrowding. The rate of new home construction has not kept pace with the demand. Funding allocated for housing construction is frequently redirected to repair and maintenance.
  1. Overcrowding can lead to poorer health. Mould is a frequent factor in poorly constructed, overcrowded houses and presents a significant health concern.
  1. Overcrowding contributes to social issues. In some communities, there are so many people living in one house that they are forced to sleep in shifts. Children in this environment often have a difficult time in school, which contributes to lower-than-average education achievement rates, which in turn can lead to lower employment rates.
  1. Overcrowding contributes to moisture buildup which decreases the lifespan of the building.
  1. Seniors and those with disabilities are forced to live in conditions that are not suited to their needs and are often hazardous to their health.
  1. Houses on some remote reserves are not constructed for the environment. In remote, northern regions the housing, due to the costs of construction, are frequently of substandard construction.
  1. Inadequate water infrastructure. In some communities, entire generations have grown up never having had access to clean water.
  1. Obtaining house insurance is difficult in some regions so houses in many communities are not insured. The dependency on wood as a source of heat leads to tragic house fires. Many remote communities do not have emergency response units.

The eight issues identified here are bullet points from the larger, more complex issue of on-reserve housing. If you are interested in an in-depth look at on-reserve housing issues, please read HOUSING ON FIRST NATION RESERVES: Challenges and Successes Interim Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples.

This article was originally posted on February 12, 2018

[1] Housing conditions among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit in Canada from the 2021 Census

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