The Cree Nation Government (CNG) announced in June a $100 million fund to subsidize construction of new homes in Eeyou Istchee in order to ease overcrowding and enable Crees to own their homes.
With overcrowding affecting around one in five Cree households, an estimated 4,500 new homes are needed by 2021. Just as a global pandemic has highlighted overcrowded conditions, there are hopes that this initiative could alleviate some of that pressure.
“We have a housing crisis that’s going to get worse if we do nothing,” CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose told the Nation. “There’s no program from the feds or Quebec that will solve it, so the only way we can do it is unlocking the value that exists in Cree housing by changing the land regime and giving Crees perpetual rights and access to lots – overcoming the Indian Act legacy of not being able to own land or property.”
In 2018, the CNG was able to remove a provision from the governance agreement that limited leases on residential lands to 75 years. With this unprecedented change to Indian Act governance, the CNG believes this will unlock the value in Cree lands and homes, which can be leveraged into loans from banks, for instance. The plan allows for homes that are owned to be sold to other Cree as well.
Namagoose says that the lots cannot be taken away by either the band or the bank, and even a seized home would have to be sold to another Cree.
The funding initiative aims to subsidize extra costs beyond what a comparable home might cost in the Abitibi region. That means community members in more remote communities may be able to access more money based on the funding formula, which is based mostly on the size of the home, with the biggest subsidy available for homes in the 2,000-square-foot range.
There will be no limits on the funding, which has already begun, though individuals applying will have to meet some criteria, including being eligible for a bank loan and being able to make a down payment.
Namagoose says the program aims to provide 1,000 homes in the next 10 to 15 years.
However, the CNG is also negotiating with the province and federal governments for money towards social housing. Geared at those who are unable to afford their own home, Namagoose says that this element could still take a few years to finalize.
Chisasibi Housing Director Sydney Chewanish says that overcrowding is a big problem in the community of almost 5,000 people, where there are currently only 943 houses. Given that 1,800 residents are under 20, the problem is certain to grow.
“There’s a lot of demand from youth over 18,” Chewanish explained, noting that many young adults are single and would be fine with smaller units. This kind of housing may also be more appropriate for some older people and disabled individuals.
A typical house there might cost $300,000 to build. In comparison, a typical 2,000-square-foot home in Montreal is estimated to cost about $200,000.
Chewanish says that’s the cost of being up north – including transportation and labour.
“We’re using 90% local people, from construction workers up to project managers, architects and engineers,” said Chewanish.
Namagoose explains that the program doesn’t force Cree to use only Cree labour, as it might be costly.
“If you insist on local content, that’s fine for the Cree Nation Government, they can afford that, but for individuals there should be a choice,” he said.
He also says that communities should allow Cree from other communities to come in to work in construction as well. “When you only allow local First Nations to work there, you lock out other First Nations.”
Namagoose notes that the fund was started with a $100 million investment but that it has already grown to a value of $112 million.