Indigenous housing promises in election platforms fall short, advocates warn

Justin Marchand is the executive director of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services and chair of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association's Indigenous Caucus. Courtesy: Justin Marchand

This is the first federal election in which housing for urban Indigenous peoples has received a distinct set of promises in multiple party platforms, but Indigenous housing advocates remain concerned the commitments fall short of what’s needed to meaningfully address the crisis.

Nearly 80 per cent of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada live off-reserve, and according to Justin Marchand, they make up more than 90 per cent or more of the population experiencing homelessness in a handful of cities, like Ontario’s Timmins and Sioux Lookout.

“So you can see there in terms of context, the level of commitment we’re going to need if Indigenous issues, if housing is important,” said Marchand, executive director of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services and chair of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association’s (CHRA) Indigenous caucus.

“We are ready to run. The government, or whoever forms the next government, might be ready to start out with baby steps, might be ready to walk.”

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In May, Ottawa’s all-party HUMA standing committee adopted a report called Indigenous Housing: The Direction Home.

Four of five major parties have a portion of its nine recommendations in their platforms, including working with Indigenous people to develop a housing strategy.

The Liberals and Greens are calling it an “Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy,” and the Liberals are backing it with an initial investment of $300 million. The Tories are promoting a “For Indigenous, By Indigenous” strategy, while the NDP is offering a fully-funded “Indigenous National Housing Strategy” within its first 100 days of being in office.

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“For Indigenous, by Indigenous — what does that mean?” asked Dr. Gabrielle Lindstrom, an educational development consultant on Indigenous ways of knowing at the University of Calgary.

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“Right now, consultation in the way it’s defined by the government is not consultation the way Indigenous people see it.”

Lindstrom, who has conducted academic research on Indigenous housing, homelessness and child welfare, said the written promises don’t indicate Indigenous people will be able to lead the creation of these strategies, rather than act as partners or take over once they’re up and running.

They fail to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the issue, she added, which raises doubts about how racism in the housing sector would be dismantled under each party’s leadership.

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“For Indigenous people, it’s not just about having more roofs over our head, it’s about being able to feel as if we are in a space where we have the freedom to be Indigenous people, where we can practise our culture, where we can have access to the natural environment,” she said.

For Indigenous people, she said, that means having “even just access to enough space that would accommodate how we understand family, which is different than Western nuclear understandings of family.”

Lindstrom also noted some of the platforms fail to place their housing promises in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, and none offers specific supports for Indigenous people migrating to urban areas from reserves.

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The HUMA committee’s report also calls on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CHMC) to support Indigenous housing strategies and a new Urban, Rural, and Northern Housing Centre, which would be co-developed by Indigenous peoples, governments, communities and organizations.

The Liberal party commits to co-developing a National Indigenous Housing Centre with Indigenous people overseeing housing programs “once fully realized,” but the Green platform is the only one that includes the CMHC.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul promises to change legislation that prevents Indigenous organizations from accessing
CMHC financing to invest in self-determined housing needs. She also vows to establish a “For Indigenous, By Indigenous” housing support program.

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Both the Liberals and Greens have also promised to appoint a new federal housing advocate — something long-called for, said Nisga’a housing advocate Luugigyoo Patrick Stewart, who is also the first Indigenous president of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.

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He’s disappointed, however, that none of their platforms include the billions of dollars and sharp timelines that would be needed to “decrease the gap.”

“If they say they’re going to propose so many units per year for the next 10 years and we know already that’s not going to be enough, and they form the government, what then?” he asked.

“So I don’t think anybody is really winning hands down.

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If re-elected, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has committed $2 billion for Indigenous housing with over half of the funding available by next summer. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Paul have not included a dollar figure in their commitments to Indigenous housing.

O’Toole, rather, has vowed to provide territories with their “fair shares” of federal housing funding, and work with “Indigenous groups including the Inuit” to ensure that housing gets built.

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Singh has promised “safe and affordable housing” in Indigenous communities on- and off-reserve, while “immediately” tackling health risks in Indigenous homes.

Paul vows to invest in housing for Indigenous peoples that includes services such as counselling, medication assistance and life skills training, along with funding for Indigenous housing providers. Her platform also specifies that Indigenous housing would be built in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and all Indigenous housing programs would be open to those without government-issued status.

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“We really did a lot of hard work for the federal government,” Marchand said. “What we’re looking for what we have been looking for is a partner.”

Over the years, Marchand said Indigenous advocates, housing providers and organizations — including the CHRA’s Indigenous caucus — have poured countless time, energy and resources into providing elected officials with a path forward on housing. These platforms are a step in the “right direction,” he explained, but the plans lack sufficient detail.

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Stewart agreed some progress has been made in supporting the housing needs of urban, rural and on-reserve Indigenous peoples in the last six years, but federal elections disrupt that process.

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Indigenous housing should be a non-partisan issue, he added, that includes consistent and reliable funding no matter who is in power, and that’s something the parties can work on together.

“That’s really hard for families,” he told Global News. “It’s hard for communities because they never know in four years how much they’re going to have or how do they plan for that.”

Stewart also called on all parties to ensure that fire safety reviews of construction and drawing plans in Indigenous communities are reinstated as a free, accessible service so communities don’t have to spend resources hiring third-party consultants.

For more information on how each of the federal party’s plans to address housing, affordability, reconciliation and mental health, visit the Global News Promise Tracker.

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