Seven families in Ouje-Bougoumou are celebrating becoming the community’s first private homeowners. It was 30 years in the making, the culmination of the housing program’s vision developed when the community was established in the early 1990s.
The sales agreements were signed January 24 with the housing pioneers who completed the final steps of this program by paying off their mortgages, outstanding loan balances and community service fees while securing private home insurance. The community’s Home Ownership Program will formalize this process with 16 more homeowners once they confirm they have home insurance.
“I’m quite proud of that accomplishment,” said housing director Minnie Wapachee. “When the community was initially built, the whole housing program was designed around home ownership. Now we’re getting tangible results, I think we’ll get more response from people who want this next step done.”
The innovative housing program was integral to its award-winning design, with energy-efficient homes built with the objective of making ownership available to as many people as possible. Having the advantage of being the most recent village built in Eeyou Istchee, early leaders intentionally avoided accommodating most people through Cree Nation Government social housing programs as other communities do.
For the 119 houses built through this home ownership program in its first 20 years, community members entered into sales or rent-to-own agreements, committing to pay the acquisition cost which was generally half of construction costs. However, Ouje-Bougoumou wasn’t federally recognized under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement as a band until a land transfer agreement was signed with Mistissini in 2012.
When the CNG succeeded in removing a 75-year limit on residential land leases in 2019 – a systemic barrier that keeps many First Nations dependent on social housing – it introduced the Community Private Housing Initiative the following year. After individual lots were transferred to potential homeowners as a perpetual lease, the OBCN housing program was finally able to formally sell the structures.
Among the 60 community members who paid their first mortgage, those who proactively maintained or improved their homes while paying the bills were prioritized for ownership. One ideal client took responsibility for major repairs and now has the most modern-looking house on the block.
“Knowing how they’ve taken care of these homes, we started off with what I consider the easier clients,” Wapachee told the Nation. “There are individual cases where I know people will take care of these homes from now on. No strings attached, sell it if you want, pass it on to your children – it’s your property.”
Once the process is finalized with the Quebec Land Registry, these houses will be legally transferred. However, others in the program made less effort to pay expenses and may never achieve ownership. Wapachee speculated some were willing to fulfill the agreement but were discouraged by various restrictions along the way.
“Over the years, there’s been this unhealthy reliance on the bands to take care of these homes when the ownership wasn’t clear,” asserted Wapachee. “You’re expected to embrace this home ownership program, but you don’t have full independence. Some of these homes have deteriorated more than they needed to, waiting for our renovation program to get to them.”
Although issues remain with overcrowded homes, non-payment and renovation needs, this program provides is one solution to the Cree Nation’s housing crisis. Additional federal funding for social housing received last year should create 750 new units across Eeyou Istchee over the next four years.
Through the Private Housing Initiative, local Cree governments can now use subsidies to build units for community members or help individuals build their own houses in the community. Wapachee suggested people living with adult children may want to rent their house to them as an income property and then build their own empty nest home.
“It’s really opened doors for people to build their family homes,” said Wapachee. “They can fast-track their building and not rely on us. There is no waiting list now – if you’re ready to build, do it. The biggest challenge now is the cost of everything. That’s the main barrier.”
While it’s no small challenge to own a house, Wapachee believes demand will increase now that people can witness the rewards within reach. New homeowners like Sydney Coonishish are encouraged by seeing how much their investment has appreciated in value.
“That excitement has been rekindled,” Coonishish told the Nation. “We’d kind of neglected it for a while but when we knew about this, we started to rearrange our house. Planning renovations, extensions and how we’re going to change the layout. It motivated us again.”
For Coonishish’s daughter and her spouse, who attended the signing ceremony, this asset represents financial security and collateral that offers the ability to buy a home in Ottawa as their children prepare for college or university.
A resident since the community’s beginnings, Coonishish was grateful for the vision and perseverance of those who supported the program. Before semi-retiring in 2018, Coonishish was involved in the cadastral survey of residential lots, which delineates land claims for the issuance of titles.
“Back in 1993 when we were starting to build Ouje-Bougoumou, one of the first things that got everyone excited was choosing the lot where you wanted to build,” recalled Coonishish. “My parents decided to build right beside me, my wife’s parents are across the street and everyone was around us.”
After the signing ceremony, Coonishish and his wife cooked up tomahawk steaks to celebrate the occasion. They’re hoping to plan a housing symposium once all the documents are produced, sharing with future homeowners the benefits of acquired wealth.
“I can’t say thank you enough to all those people who kept the momentum going on this dream that we had,” said Coonishish on the way to his camp, joking he may have to call it a “lakeside residence” one day. “I hope one day we all get together and celebrate this very special time in our young community. I’ll remember this a long time.”