By Matteo Cimellaro
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ottawa is grossly underfunding Indigenous housing, the NDP says, adding it will take more than five decades to fix housing in First Nations communities at the current rate the federal government is investing.
Indigenous services critics Lori Idlout, MP for Nunavut, and Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill_Keewatinook, called out the Liberals at a press conference on Thursday, saying there is no way the government will be able to fulfil its promise to close the housing gap and provide adequate housing in Indigenous communities by 2030.
Ottawa’s current funding, $2.7 billion over the past seven years and an additional $4 billion over the next seven, is nowhere near enough, Ashton and Idlout said. Research by the Assembly of First Nations states First Nations will require $40 billion to address the current housing crisis by 2030, with another $16 billion to address future needs.
Indigenous communities were facing a housing crisis long before the rest of Canada, Ashton said in an interview, with the estimated number of homes needed on reserve between 35,000 and 85,000.
Ashton also described the state of housing in her own constituency as “akin to Third World living conditions.”
“We’re talking overcrowded homes, mould-infested homes, homes that are falling apart, people relying on tarps to close off parts of their home,” she added.
The waiting lists for on-reserve housing continue to grow, Ashton said. The numbers, which stretch into the hundreds for First Nations in her northern Manitoba riding, are a “clear reflection of the gap,” she said.
Under the current system, funding for on-reserve housing is disbursed to First Nations to build and renovate houses, as well as provide maintenance, insurance, planning and management of the community’s housing needs.
The NDP submitted two order paper questions regarding funding for First Nations: the first asked about how many loans were requested, disbursed and defaulted upon since 2015; the second asked how much housing funding was requested and delivered, and how many homes were ultimately built with that funding.
Half of the $2.7 billion spent on housing in Indigenous communities was awarded to specific housing projects as a one-time investment, out of which 2,049 of 3,000 projects were completed, according to the response to the order paper questions.
Another billion was committed through loan guarantees to cover for First Nations unable to repay housing loans.
Patty Hajdu, minister of Indigenous Services, told Canada’s National Observer the government needs to have realistic time frames when it comes to getting money into communities. Since 2016, there has been $4 billion on the books for Indigenous housing but only $1.3 billion has been spent, she said.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Canada’s National housing agency, also told Canada’s National Observer through a written answer that the release of funding lags their commitments because monies are only released as projects progress, which often stretches multiple fiscal years.
For example, money is committed by Ottawa and designated for specific projects, but delays often halt the process depending on challenges regarding water and energy infrastructure and, at times, jurisdictional overlap between First Nations and the provinces, Hajdu explained.
Take a subdivision in Attawapiskat, Ont., which would require building on traditional territory that’s currently Crown land owned by Ontario, Hajdu added.
“I agree with the NDP that we have to be thoughtful and that we have to be strategic if we’re going to hit the 2030 goal, but it isn’t just money alone that will close that gap,” Hajdu said.
The NDP’s criticism comes on the heels of the release of the Federal Program Spending on Housing in 2022 report by the parliamentary budget officer. The report notes Ottawa committed more than $89 billion over 10 years starting in the 2018-19 fiscal year as part of its National Housing Strategy.
The report, including Ottawa’s National Housing Strategy, exludes Indigenous-specific programs administered by Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.
“Reconciliation should mean action, and one of the areas that require immediate action is housing,” Ashton said.
In a previous interview, Idlout reiterated the need for a $6-billion investment over two years to address immediate housing needs put forward by the federal government’s National Housing Strategy.
Idlout understands the urgency. Her home territory of Nunavut faces the same housing problems as First Nations across other provinces and territories. Idlout encouraged more people, and specifically Hajdu, to visit homes in Nunavut.
“Go and visit the homes that I see, go and see people living in overcrowded housing situations, visit Arviat who has families who have created shifts for who is going to sleep in which bedrooms,” Idlout said at the press conference.
“I hope Minister Hajdu comes to Nunavut and sees the realities I’m seeing.”
Idlout also noted Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s pre-budget submission estimates an initial capital investment of $55.3 billion over 10 years.
While it’s unclear if Ottawa’s 2023 budget will increase housing for Indigenous funding, Hajdu said she is “always ambitious” in the space of Indigenous equity.
“It’s simplistic to think there’s an easy answer? but it’s my job to help communities to unlock the tools they need, including financial tools, to move their community forward.”
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative