By Gemma Dingwall
Since 1876, the Federal Government has been responsible for housing on Indian reserves. In 2016, 27.4% of people on reserves lived in over-crowded housing and 24.2% of First Nations people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs.
There are several contributing factors to these numbers. Firstly, many reserves are in northern isolated regions, which makes for shorter building seasons and costlier materials. Additionally, Indigenous people are also the fastest growing population in Canada and the available housing has not kept up. Furthermore, housing management can be run by people who are not qualified or have too many competing interests to adequately address the house repairs that are needed. However, one major factor is the consistency in which the Federal Government provides inadequate funding for housing and has ignored this issue for generations.
As high as these numbers may seem, they do not fully capture what the housing crisis looks like for those living in it. What those numbers do not provide is a visual of children sleeping on mattresses in living rooms. It does not paint a picture of twelve people living in a three-bedroom house so that people have to take shifts to sleep. It does not show young families waiting years just to have a place of their own. Nor do the stats really show what the inside of a home in need of major repairs looks like, whether that be leaking pipes, mold, holes in the wall or broken appliances.
The housing crisis has detrimental effects in so many areas. Children facing overcrowding have nowhere to complete their homework. Domestic violence victims have no where safe to go. A lack of privacy can lead to mental illnesses like depression. It also acts as a barrier for those looking to recover from their addictions who have no choice but to live with those who are still consuming. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 which can be spread more easily through overcrowded housing, also pose a serious threat to communities
During my internship with the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DOJCS) of the Cree Nation, I was exposed to some particular ways in which overcrowding affects the justice system. One current challenge for the Cree Nation is that formerly incarcerated people as well as people who have experienced homelessness and who want to come back and integrate into their community have nowhere to go.
If their families do not want them in the home or there is no room in the home, these individuals have no opportunity to rejoin their community. Moreover, because of overcrowding, there are no alternatives—they cannot simply find another place to live. This problem compounds other issues such as formerly incarcerated people are less likely to follow their probation plan when they are far away from their community and do not have appropriate cultural programming or proper support.
To address this issue, the DOJCS has introduced the Tiny Homes Community Project. To start, three of the nine Cree communities will provide ten Tiny Homes for formerly incarcerated people to stay in while they look for more long-term housing. As Tiny Home tenants, they will receive support from Elders and mental health professionals. Each tenant is also required to participate in programming that will help them become a healthy, contributing member of the community.
My role in this project was to work in a team to draft the rights, responsibilities and protocols for the clients of these Tiny Homes. Again, the housing shortage posed several challenges. The Tiny Homes are meant to serve as transitional housing so the residents can integrate into the community. However, many people in the Cree Nation have to wait several years to be given access to a home of their own. This must be balanced with the high demand for the program, so the Tiny Homes cannot be occupied by the same clients for years. Another issue to consider is the process of expelling someone from the program, which may be necessary when the safety of the staff or other tenants is at risk. The reality is the expelled individual will have very few options on where to go; in some cases, they will have nowhere to go.
Overall, there are so many barriers caused by the housing crisis. It affects health, education, child development, rehabilitation, individual safety, familial relationships and overall community building. I know the Tiny Homes is a great program and will help many people reconnect with their community. Unfortunately, I also know that the housing crisis will continue to limit the number of people it serves and impacts its true potential.
 “The housing conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada” (25 October 2017) online: < https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/ > [https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016021/98-200-x2016021-eng.cfm]