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As the prefab housing program nears its winter completion, some communities are facing delays

BY Ben Powless Dec 7, 2021

A federal initiative to build dozens of modular homes across Eeyou Istchee is facing delays as the prefabricated homes have failed to arrive in the Cree communities on time. 

On March 17, the federal government, in conjunction with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the Cree Nation Government (CNG), announced a $17.4 million investment as part of its Rapid Housing Initiative. The initiative was slated to build 55 “affordable, modular homes” in the nine Cree communities: 10 each in Chisasibi and Mistissini, and five in the remaining communities. 

At the time, then-Grand Chief Abel Bosum stated, “The Cree Nation welcomes Canada’s investment for the immediate construction of 55 modular homes in the Cree communities of 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.”

The program aimed to have the 55 homes completed and inhabited by the end of January 2022, according to Martin Desgagné, Senior Assistant Director of Capital Works for the CNG. Desgagné said that all the modular units were to be delivered by December 8, with Mistissini, Waswanipi and Eastmain still with pending modules to be delivered. 

“Construction started this summer. The units were built in a factory setting and delivered to the community. They’re still in the process of delivery – most communities have received them, but some haven’t,” Bert Hester of the CNG told the Nation

Hester said that the federal program helps with the housing backlog, but that there needs to be more investment to meet the estimated 2,000 housing units designated by the Cree Nation Housing Strategy. 

Desgagné said that the CNG had submitted an application for 114 housing units under the program, made up of triplexes with two bedrooms, and he expected to hear back from CMHC soon.

In Waskaganish, Housing Director Marty Cowboy says the five homes slated for construction should be completed by January. “They are modular units: they build them in a manufacturer and ship them here. We hire a contractor, and the contractor prepares the foundations. There’s still some interior work to be done – electricity, power, plumbing and hooking up service connections,” he said. 

Cowboy said it would be ideal if the houses could be built from scratch in the Cree communities, but the federal program has strict funding requirements and deadlines that have to be followed, which only allow the prefabricated homes to be shipped in from the south. 

“We need more houses, and we appreciate any type of housing we can get,” Cowboy explained. While the community would ideally like to build 30-40 units in any given year, he said they’re only able to build about 10 because of funding and the rising costs of construction materials.

As for the soon-to-be-completed homes, Cowboy says the community has posted information about their availability, and people can apply now for a space in the homes, some of which are specially adapted for the elderly and those with disabilities. 

The Rapid Housing Initiative is part of a broader $1 billion investment by the federal government to build 3,000 affordable housing units across Canada, with a number targeted for First Nations communities. The CNG applied for funding on behalf of the communities.  

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.