Indigenous communities and governments have made progress in addressing the housing and infrastructure deficit in Canada’s First Nations. The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships estimates the cost of this gap in essential services – like clean water and power, sewage treatment and broadband access – could be as high as $30 billion.
On March 17, the Cree Nation came one step closer to creating affordable housing, which has been identified as an urgent priority for at least a decade. Through its Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), the federal government announced $17.4 million in funding for the immediate construction of 55 homes for Elders and people with disabilities in Eeyou Istchee.
“This investment complements our efforts to meet the critical need for more than 2,000 housing units through our innovative Cree Nation Housing Strategy,” stated Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “And it marks an important step in Canada’s partnership with us in advancing this strategy, with its cornerstone of prioritizing private home ownership, while addressing the special housing needs of Cree Elders, youth and lower-income persons.”
A total of 20 modular homes will be constructed in Chisasibi and Mistissini, while five homes will be built in each of Eastmain, Nemaska, Ouje-Bougoumou, Waskaganish, Waswanipi, Wemindji and Whapmagoostui. All should be ready for occupation by the end of 2021.
“We are fabricating them now,” explained CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “The communities will do the foundations when the ground thaws, then we’ll bring in the units from the fabrication plant and set them up.”
As the pandemic highlighted the risk of overcrowded housing, the $1 billion RHI launched last October to create new permanent homes across the country for those who need it most. The project has already exceeded its initial target by developing 4,700 units, including 1,806 for Indigenous peoples.
The RHI encourages the conversion and rehabilitation of non-residential buildings, like abandoned warehouses, into affordable homes. With existing infrastructure already in place, Namagoose said the Cree Nation had an advantage over other First Nations, helping secure quick approval from the RHI.
“We built the infrastructure first, then the housing units come later,” Namagoose said. “A lot of First Nations are in a Catch-22 – they don’t have the infrastructure, but they can’t apply for housing and reduce their backlog. If you don’t have infrastructure, you can’t build housing, schools or clinics.”
Adequate infrastructure – especially transportation, energy and telecommunications – is a prerequisite for economic development. However, the need for more basic services in many northern Indigenous communities makes it difficult to consider these longer-term investments.
These challenges are exacerbated by environmental factors, such as remote geography, short building seasons and harsh climates. A complex political environment is perhaps even more detrimental.
To address the limited access to financing capital, the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) launched the Indigenous Community Infrastructure Initiative (ICII) on March 19. With loans of at least $5 million available to cover up to 80% of project costs, the ICII is targeted to invest over $1 billion in clean energy, broadband, trade and transportation, and public transit revenue-producing projects.
“We say a billion dollars is the floor and not a ceiling,” said Hillary Thatcher, the CIB’s ICII lead. “The goal is to get more community-based infrastructure built by providing this type of low-cost and patient capital, to close that gap and drive healthy green economies that suit the First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities’ needs.”
The CIB’s flexible repayment options enable Indigenous communities to advance their goals without waiting for government grants. Some communities are considering creative arrangements to build wastewater treatment plants, for example, by leveraging other revenue streams.
“We are working with communities and federal partners to determine if there are other solutions that can get the infrastructure built faster,” Thatcher told the Nation. “Green energy is important to the bank’s mandate – over 100 Indigenous communities currently rely on diesel generation. They’re looking at clean alternatives. A reliable energy supply can be a game-changer for a remote community.”
Thatcher explained that a community’s growth can be constrained by limitations in its power supply. Empowering sustainable energy projects not only develops local economic and health benefits, but also has a substantial impact on reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The ICII has already attracted significant interest from First Nations like West Moberly in BC, which wants to build a solar farm, but they have had difficulty borrowing from banks without any private property ownership on reserve. These types of obstacles motivated the Cree Nation to develop its housing strategy last year with both private and social components.
“The banks are still asking a lot of questions,” Namagoose shared. “They say the ecosystem for the real estate market is still not there – one obstacle was needing a guarantee from the government or band council to get a bank loan to build a house. Now they’ve agreed they won’t need that guarantee.”
Namagoose was told the RHI announcement was a partial government response to the Cree Nation’s major housing proposal and discussions will resume May 5. The $100 million private housing initiative provides prospective Cree homeowners with an affordability subsidy to compensate for higher construction costs in the North.
“So far, communities and individuals have built 50 private homes,” said Namagoose. “The goal is to build a self-sustaining housing market where people will be able to own and lease land in perpetuity. Of course, that gives Crees future options to build equity in their homes, which they can tap for economic opportunities.”
While the housing initiative is a means of working around legal obstacles that remain in Canada’s constitution, Namagoose says that prospects are much more positive than the 1990s when governments sought to prevent mining companies from even talking with the Crees.
“Our people are understanding, we’re not going to take away anything from them,” Namagoose asserted. “We’re giving them something that was denied to them – great efforts were taken by governments across Canada to marginalize people like us. It’s vastly different today. They’ve started to understand we can propose our own solutions and sustain our livelihoods.”