Gimme shelter – Cree Nation housing crisis

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The Cree Nation Government is launching efforts it hopes will address the crisis-level lack of decent, affordable housing. CNG hopes to more than double the existing housing stock by building 5250 new units over the next 15 years.

“It’s a big task, but I think it’s doable,” said Henry Miascum, the director of the Capital Works and Services department and the man the CNG has chosen to lead its housing planning group.

“We have the right core of people to get it going,” he told the Nation. The planning group, which includes key officials from local communities, is getting input from the health and school boards and people specialized in areas like home financing and construction.

Mianscum recognizes there is a high level of frustration over both the quantity and quality of existing housing.

In 2013, the inventory of housing stock for the entire Cree nation was 3,879 houses (including 1,629 built by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation), most of which needed major renovations.

“There are so many people who are homeless,” Mianscum observed. “They need homes and they are getting the same information from one community to the next: We don’t have a housing program. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the professional people to provide advice. That’s a concern that our leadership has, that we have the same bitter news for people that are looking for homes.”

Mianscum says the decision to make it a priority will help pool resources and expertise.

“We’re trying to intervene at the regional level, the CNG level, so that we can assist the local governments and their community members,” he said. “I have great confidence in the Cree leadership. They are the ones who are looking at housing as a priority. That has a significant effect on everybody: once we know that the Cree leadership is behind what is needed: it gives you a good motivation, good inspiration to do your best to try to help.”

23-05 Cree Firefighter Gala photo by Charles House copy

Grand Chief Coon Come and Henry Mianscum

Particular problems

Housing for Indigenous peoples often poses problems in the best of circumstances, but the communities of the Eeyou Istchee face a particularly difficult challenge that includes:

  • A highly unpredictable construction season. “There are many challenges when you are constructing in the northern milieu, the weather being one,” Mianscum notes.
  • Difficult/expensive transportation of building materials. “It’s a long haul and the roads aren’t in as good a condition as they should be on the James Bay Highway.”
  • Severe shortage of skilled workers. A recent labour survey found just three master carpenters, one master electrician and one certified electrician in the entire territory of Eeyou Istchee. Although the Cree School Board’s continuing education department and CNG’s Human Resources Development department have offered various levels of courses in plumbing, carpentry and electrical work, the planning committee is looking at how to meet labour needs in the long term. Capital Works Coordinator Martin Gagnier told the working committee that “a trade worker assessment needs to conducted” and a training plan drawn up that would “include house inspectors, maintenance workers and specialized trades.”
  • A difficult environment. Extreme weather and shifting permafrost in northern areas pose particular problems for housing, especially when it comes to the construction of stable foundations.

As in other Indigenous communities, it’s also difficult for many Cree to obtain reasonable financing terms for home construction. Section 89.1 of the Federal Indian Act bars banks from seizing on-reserve properties in case of non-payment. That means banks won’t provide mortgages that use the home as collateral.

Some Native communities, such as the Huron-Wendat Wendake reserve near Quebec City, have had great success with band-controlled Revolving Loan Fund programs where money is pooled and lent out to build, renovate and purchase on-reserve homes. The interest revenue and capital repayment goes back into the fund, where it’s used to make additional loans.

“They are very successful in assisting their community members build their private homes. It’s not a new concept but it’s a new undertaking by the Cree Nation,” said Mianscum, who noted however that such a program here is “still a ways off.”

Southern drift

Meanwhile, however, the housing shortage is driving many Cree to settle further south.

A report presented to the CNG directors in December noted that “a large number of Cree First Nation families have moved away from their home communities because of inadequate and insufficient housing and this trend is continuing. These families are relocating to other towns and cities, such as Montreal, Ottawa, Val-d’Or, Gatineau, Chibougamau.”

Mianscum says the shift is understandable.

“Many of our people have gone down south to study. Depending on the program they are in, they could go up to five years or longer.” When they start looking to come home, the housing crunch leaves few options.

“Some community members have no alternative but to try to find a home in nearby communities. You can’t blame them when there is nothing in the (Cree) community as a housing alternative. They have to provide for their family and that’s the only option they have. That’s why we’re getting very concerned about the number of people that are starting to go in that direction.”

To meet the housing targets, the communities would need to see the construction of as 350 to 500 units a year, including both private and low-income housing. In addition, “a lot of the homes that been built 20, 30, 40 years ago require major renovations,” Mianscum stated.

At the same time, “we want to build homes that are affordable,” he said. “That’s something we are prioritizing. And we are looking at ways of utilizing the resources that we have, both regional and local.”

The arrival of a new government in Ottawa that has said the Native housing crisis is near the top of its agenda is welcome, but Mianscum is cautious. “They look good in terms of promises about the First Nations housing situation, but we haven’t seen anything,” he noted.

Of possible federal assistance, Mianscum said, “it’s premature” to depend on possible assistance. But he is confident the Cree community is able to address the crisis.

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