Don’t tell Carol McBride that housing is not a primary federal responsibility.
As a former chief, McBride remembers going through a housing crisis when she ran the Timiskaming First Nation in northwest Quebec, and that was in the 1990s.
Now president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada in Ottawa, she was dismayed to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau try to distance her government from the housing file last month.
“It led me to believe that it’s totally out of touch with Indian issues,” McBride said, adding that housing on reservations is a federal responsibility.
“We rely on the federal government, of course, for housing. For him to say that is completely out of the question. I tell you, I can’t believe he said that.”
At a news conference in Hamilton on July 31, Trudeau told reporters that “housing is not a primary federal responsibility,” nor is it a file for which Ottawa has “direct charge.” While he added that “it’s something we can and should help with,” opposition parties attacked.
Federal Conservatives circulated the clip in online attacks, while the NDP criticized the comment as an out-of-touch signal, a slight to the urgent housing crisis facing indigenous communities.
A former activist, councilman, chief for 13 years and grand chief for two terms of the Algonquin Nation Secretary, McBride pointed to Trudeau’s big promises of clean water and good infrastructure for First Nations during the 2015 election campaign.
“Where has that gone?” she asked.
“He’s dismissing what he campaigned for. I’m very disappointed that he came out to say it wasn’t his responsibility.”
While Trudeau’s comments were mainly directed at the provinces, which he accused of not doing enough on housing, Canada’s Constitution places First Nations and their reserves under federal jurisdiction.
“The federal government is responsible”
Paul Irngaut recalls how Ottawa promised Inuit housing if they abandoned their traditional way of life and moved to settlements.
He and his family moved into a “matchbox” house, with no running water or toilet, except for a bucket with a garbage bag, he recalled. They were eight.
“Overpopulation started back then,” Irngaut said by phone from Iqaluit.
“So for the Inuit, definitely, the federal government is responsible for housing.”
He is now vice president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which represents the Inuit under the Nunavut Settlement.
He said he hopes Trudeau and his cabinet will think hard about solutions as they meet for a retreat this week on Prince Edward Island, where housing is considered a top priority.
It is disheartening to hear of a housing crisis in the South, given the protracted situation in the North, Irngaut said.
“We have been at a crisis level for several years.”
In the West, as Chairman of the General Council of Métis Settlements, Dave Lamouche heads the central government of Canada’s only land-based, legislated Métis.
They occupy eight settlements across Alberta, collectively the size of PEI, and also face severe housing shortages and overcrowding, Lamouche said, having “a ripple effect” on health and social cohesion.
“The federal government should take full responsibility and do [housing] a primary concern, because we are dealing with people,” Lamouche said.
In a report last year, the House of Commons indigenous affairs committee echoed these concerns, concluding that the shortage of indigenous housing has cascading negative effects on health, economic development, educational success, family life, cultural continuity and more.
His main recommendations were simple: work with indigenous peoples to build more housing to alleviate systemic conditions of overcrowding, though recent reports suggest that won’t be easy.
A terrible deficit
In December 2021, the Assembly of First Nations set The cost of closing the housing gap in reserves is $60 billion.calling it the price of reversing decades of federal neglect.
That same year, then-Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq toured the territory documenting deplorable conditions including mold, overcrowding, and unsafe housing in urgent need of repair.
According to the territorial government’s Nunavut Housing Corp., the challenges range from inadequate supply, aging infrastructure, climate change and near-term land use planning, to rising construction costs.
Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, the median unit price shot up to $923,447 from $379,780, the housing corporation said. in his report Nunavut 3,000 last year. The ambitious plan aims to build 3,000 homes by 2030, but given those prices, Irngaut doubts it’s feasible.
Meanwhile, the Métis settlements provided the indigenous affairs committee with identifiable statistics in their submission.
In one settlement, the overcrowding rate was said to be 32 percent, or eight times that of the general non-Indian population, a statistic that applies to both reservations and Nunavut.
When criticized, liberals often point to the seven-year, $4 billion promise of this budget for a northern urban, rural and indigenous housing strategy.
But over seven years, and with such a great need and such high prices, it’s going to dwindle fast, Lamouche said.
“With so many indigenous communities across Canada, it’s really not a big deal.”