For decades, the Canadian image has relied on a collective understanding and recognition that we are the “international good guys.” We sewed Canadian flags on our packsacks. Wherever we went, they were our ticket to a ride, to a meal, to a friend. But more recently, the friendly Canadian identity has begun to wear thin. Over the past decade, this image has been undermined by a stark truth: heart-wrenching stories from residential school survivors, damning accounts of discrimination in the RCMP, and charges of racism in our hospitals, schools and businesses.

Trying to help Canadians make sense of the barrage, Prime Minister Trudeau said last June that systemic racism exists across the country, and that we need to examine the building blocks of our country to see whether they were constructed on a racist foundation.

Housing in First Nations is one of those building blocks.

Houses are our most significant social status indicator. Housing is a social determinant of health, one that is directly related to the health and well-being of its occupants. Homes can tell us a lot about the people they house. The only thing many Canadians know about First Nations comes from their drives past reserves or media coverage of the First Nations’ housing crisis. Most Canadians would describe houses on reserves as rundown, dilapidated and unkempt, thus developing and reinforcing negative stereotypes of First Nations people.

What most Canadians do not know is why First Nations’ housing is so substandard and inadequate.

The First Nations’ housing system has been built on the racist Indian Act from 1876, which removed the opportunity for people on reserves to house themselves. By imposing what were known as Indian agents to manage First Nations’ affairs, the act entrenched the perception that First Nations people were inept and incapable of managing their own affairs. These perceptions formed a paradigm that shaped Canada’s approach to First Nations’ housing and that still permeates the field to this day.

But saying the Indian Act is racist is like saying we need air to breathe. It’s indisputable. The act was just a start. Racism in First Nations’ housing has been perpetuated through one bureaucratic decision after the next. In the 1930s, Canada implemented its first National Housing Act to promote the construction of homes, the repair and modernization of existing houses, and the improvement of housing and living conditions. In the 1940s, it established the precursor to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to make housing affordable by developing systematic lending mechanisms.

Meanwhile, in the 1950s, the federal government put in place the welfare housing program on-reserve. It amounted to distributing bundles of building supplies, enough to frame a tiny shack, approved by the Indian agent, to people he found deserving. The systems did not cross over. First Nations people on reserves were denied access to necessary mortgages and inspection services. While all Canadians are dependent on the legal housing instruments approved by government on and off reserves, it should come as no surprise that when you are forced to depend on a welfare system that excludes all the normal opportunities to house yourself, that sort of dependency looks different and it does not look good.

The moral imperative to house the neediest meant that of necessity the most capable citizens went elsewhere to house their families, making First Nations into pockets of poverty.

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With nowhere near enough money to go around, Indian agents and subsequent band managers had to choose who got the bundle of housing materials. The moral imperative to house the neediest meant that of necessity the most capable citizens went elsewhere to house their families, making First Nations into pockets of poverty.

Then, when the First Nations’ housing system failed decade after decade, the government somehow interpreted the failure as further proof that First Nations people could not manage themselves and needed more government “help.” One example of such help was in the 1970s, when CMHC partnered with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to deliver its social housing program (Section 95) to First Nations. By the 1980s, the failed policy was changed to focus on teaching First Nations to deliver the services rather than involving them in reworking the inappropriate and inadequate programs to better fit their needs.

The on-reserve housing system has a bigger debt to pay when we examine the role it played in the tuberculosis crisis of the 1950s and 1960s. We are only beginning to assess the part it played in the removal of children from their homes to residential schools and the ’60s Scoop. This isn’t just history: a disproportionate number of First Nations children currently live in overcrowded houses and experience housing insecurity, and there are more First Nations children in the welfare system today than at the height of residential schools.

On-reserve housing conditions are an illustration of what happens when legal restrictions remove the possibility of independence and replace it with cookie-cutter government-issue housing. For generations, the on-reserve housing system removed the natural development of housing skills and innovation and, worse yet, it removed hope and a reason to dream. It is hard for Canadians to imagine housing as a government welfare program that systematically denies citizens, based on race, access to common housing instruments that are available in the mainstream. Yet this is exactly the framework under which First Nations’ housing operates.

Accessing funds for home construction is now possible in some First Nations. The frustrating truth is that it always could have been possible, even within the limitations of the Indian Act. When First Nations have the opportunity to drive the process, to find solutions to house themselves through their own programs and policies, and to access sustained funding, the results are powerful. Programs and policies do not need to dictate to First Nations, they simply need to provide a mechanism for First Nations to address housing in their own ways.

The good news is that in 2018, Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs, and Jane Philpott, then-minister of Indigenous services, acknowledged a path toward programs and services, including housing, led by Indigenous institutions and governments.

But it’s difficult to change the direction of the wheels in the machinery of government. CMHC’s Rapid Housing Initiative is the latest example of throwing money at a decades-old problem without adequate input from First Nations, quite possibly missing the mark entirely in terms of what is actually needed. It doesn’t carve out dedicated funding for First Nations, instead requiring them to compete with municipalities, provinces and territories despite the disproportionate number of First Nations in Canada’s homeless population. Also, it funds only the capital costs of homes, not their exorbitant long-term operation and maintenance costs.

First Nations’ housing policy strikes another blow to Canada’s image. Current policy that perpetuates the “government-knows-best” approach must be examined and replaced with policy that removes government from the controls and truly empowers First Nations to determine and address their own housing needs.

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Sylvia Olsen
Sylvia Olsen, PhD, is an instructor at Vancouver Island University and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. She is a senior advisor with the First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council in British Columbia and was a member of the Assembly of First Nations chiefs’ committee on housing and infrastructure.
Garry Merkel
Garry Merkel is from the Tahltan Nation. He was the chair of the Aboriginal Housing Committee in British Columbia for 12 years and is now the chief negotiator for the First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council in British Columbia.
Kerry Black
Kerry Black, PhD, is an assistant professor and Canada research chair in integrated knowledge, engineering and sustainable communities at the University of Calgary in the department of civil engineering. She works with Indigenous communities across Canada on sustainable infrastructure and community-based research.

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