The federal government has yet to develop a comprehensive housing strategy recognizing the unique, place-based needs of Northern Canada despite the persistence of the longstanding Northern housing crisis.

The crisis is urgent and deeply felt across all aspects of Northern community life but the federal government has responded for decades only with stopgap policy measures. Sporadic federal funding and its management of the downstream effects of long-term underinvestment in housing and homelessness prevention perpetuate the chronic issue in the North.

We are at a critical point where we must ask: What is the end goal of housing policy in Northern and Indigenous communities?

The crisis framing of northern housing policy in Canada has legitimized and been legitimated by an emphasis on metrics such as core housing need and housing needs assessments, as well as the domination of a housing continuum approach to conceptualizing the end goal of housing.

These approaches privilege European-Canadian, Southern Canadian and settler ideals around homeownership within the context of the market and are therefore detached from place-based and Indigenous understandings of housing priorities and needs.

They also neglect the broader role of shelter in the making of home and the cultivation of individual and community health, well-being, agency and self-determination. The end goal for Northern Indigenous housing must instead be the cultivation and sustainability of agency and self-determination through housing – a goal that is rooted in safety, security and the power to make housing decisions at the individual, family and community levels.

At home in the North

Since 2020, the At Home in the North partnership has brought together Northern and Indigenous community partners from across the provinces and territories to discuss solutions to their housing issues. For any such strategy to be effective and sustainable, the agency and self-determination of Northern Indigenous communities must be a core objective.

This housing crisis is an ongoing, chronic condition resulting from the failure of top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches to meeting the diverse housing needs of Northern Indigenous communities. This is not a recent phenomenon and not a “problem” that can be effectively addressed through policy designed outside the Northern context.

This “crisis” is a symptom of colonial social policy and ongoing housing inequities in planning, funding and governance. Several critical elements of the policy status quo must be fundamentally challenged to support Northern Indigenous communities, regional governments and their leadership.

Interrogating housing continuums

There has been a trend in housing development policy that focuses on innovation, particularly technological innovation, as a silver bullet to supply challenges. Yet the focus on funding to discover technological innovation dismisses the practical solutions that Northern communities already have in place.

It also suggests there is one approach to Northern housing that can then be developed wholesale. This goes with the assumption that all Northern communities are homogeneous, and thus fails to recognize the importance of reflecting the diverse individuals and communities that these policies are supposed to assist.

The obsession with technological innovation effectively ignores the broader meaning and potential for innovation in Northern housing. It does not represent a move away from what so far hasn’t worked – the sporadic, indecisive and top-down housing policy landscape. More importantly, it doesn’t embrace policy that is place-based, community-led and focused on Northern Indigenous agency and self-determination.

Northern housing needs direct, predictable funding

For decades, Northern and Indigenous communities have pushed back against housing policies which operate in a top-down, one-size-fits-all framework, arguing instead for direct and dependable funding. Yet their calls have largely gone unheard.

Now, communities must apply for funding annually in competition with each other. Funding is sporadic and often tied to specific uses that may not align with community needs. Deadlines and project time horizons are often short and misaligned with Northern shipping and building seasons.

Southern companies are often the contractors because as the stop-start nature of funding does not enable the development of Northern-based construction networks. This destabilizing approach exhausts resources, increases costs and results in extensive economic leakage out of the North.

Housing construction presents a significant community-based economic development opportunity. But competitive and sporadic short-term investments eliminate the possibility of effective planning and partnerships, regional co-operation, specialized trade training and establishment of local construction networks.

These investment strategies also institutionalize reactionary housing governance responses, eliminating the possibility of longer-term, strategic planning for the climate crisis among other stresses on the housing system.

Housing as home

The 1994 phaseout of consistent federal funding for social housing led to an encouragement of homeownership and the introduction of market housing. It diminished the role of the provinces and territories in this area. Homeownership persists as the core housing policy framework in Northern Canada – an end-goal ideal that is unrealistic for the majority of communities across the North, where housing markets do not exist, and where the costs of building and maintaining affordable housing are out of reach for many households. A blind commitment to homeownership drives chronic housing need and neglects the alternatives available.

The end goal must instead be self-determination through housing – in other words, the resources and capacity necessary to support Indigenous-led governance of all aspects of the housing system, from design to tenure to policy and planning. This is a goal is rooted in safety, security and the power to make housing decisions at the individual, family and community levels.

The need for Indigenous-led housing policy

The blueprint to address systemic racism in First Nations’ housing

Not only should this be the target of housing policy, it is the centre of community wellness (for example self-actualization, safety, security, economic growth and development, physical and mental health and healing). There is a need for a deep rethink of current approaches and policy frameworks shaping Northern housing that go beyond funding allocations or program details. Housing needs to be reconceptualized and policy tools developed that reflect a recognition of housing as home in all of its capacities to support community wellness.

Housing is much more than shelter. It’s the physical and social space where we create home and cultivate individual, family and community wellness. Yet the notion of home is largely absent from housing policy in Canada, despite calls in the National Housing Strategy that frame housing as a “place to call home” or emphasize “reaching home” in the case of the homelessness prevention and reduction strategy.

Northern Indigenous housing is also an important point of intersecting community sustainability goals, including local and regional economic and infrastructural development, among other areas.

Northern housing is at a critical point in its evolution. It’s time to rethink current policy and governance frameworks and replace them with approaches that see housing at the centre of Northern Indigenous community wellness, sustainability, self-governance, and ultimately, home.

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Julia Christensen
Dr. Julia Christensen is associate professor in geography and planning at Queen’s University, director of At Home in the North and author of No Home in a Homeland (UBC Press).
Christina Goldhar
Christina Goldhar is a PhD candidate in geography and planning at Queen's University, a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholar, and project co-ordinator of At Home in the North.
Jeffrey Herskovits
Jeffrey Herskovits a research and project manager with Together Design Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Shelagh McCartney
Dr. Shelagh McCartney is a licensed architect and urbanist specializing in housing, an associate professor at the school of urban and regional planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, and director of Together Design Lab.
Mylene Riva
Dr. Mylene Riva is an associate professor in the department of geography at McGill University, where she holds a tier two Canada Research Chair in Housing, Community and Health.

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