4.3 A Critical Review of Canadian First Nations and Aboriginal Housing Policy, 1867 - Present

In the early 1990s Canada’s national media trained its investigative lens on poor reserve-housing conditions, exposing the depth of what was then described as a crisis. This did not provoke Ottawa’s effective response even if the heightened attention did prompt First Nations and Aboriginal leaders to greater levels of political advocacy, which improved public awareness leading Canada’s Auditor General to study the issue in 2003.¹ Unfortunately no substantial policy changes resulted and national reserve-housing conditions continued their decline. Poor housing is linked to growing national Aboriginal homeless rates both on and off reserves as well as staggered economic development, inferior health standards and diminishing educational outcomes (Belanger, 2007; Belanger et al, 2012b; Canada, 2015; Christensen, 2013; Ruttan et al, 2008; Weasel Head, 2011). All the same, characterizing the federal, provincial and territorial governments – and by association Canadians in general – as unsympathetic would be extreme. Between 2006 and 2013 the Government of Canada provided $2.3 billion in on-reserve housing support to First Nations, which contributed to an annual average of 1,750 new units and 3,100 renovations annually (Canada, 2013). It would seem that Canadians are demanding improved Aboriginal housing conditions even if bureaucratic efforts to date have failed to translate into practical community outcomes. In May 2015, for instance, the CBC reported that the federally sponsored $300-million First Nations Market Housing Fund established in 2008 had produced 99 new reserve homes to date – out of a proposed target seeking 25,000 privately owned dwellings by 2018 (Beeby, 2015). With this in mind one must critically reflect upon: one, why the aforesaid housing conditions continue to deteriorate and, two, why Canada’s response demonstrates little sense of urgency. Therefore the starting point for this discussion is to explore Canada’s Aboriginal housing policy, which may appear somewhat unorthodox in a book discussing the growing importance of establishing systems approaches to ending homelessness. However, by exploring federal Aboriginal housing policy we can produce insights that help to clarify why reserve homelessness and urban Aboriginal homeless rates continue their rise, and this is essential to developing informed homelessness policies and intervention strategies.

Publication Date: 
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
Naomi Nichols; Carey Doberstein