Over the past couple of years the First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council of BC managed the most comprehensive research project ever conducted into what First Nations people are saying about housing and infrastructure in BC First Nations. Over 90% said they want to take back control of their own housing and infrastructure services.
That’s not surprising given the abominable job the federal government has done of managing First Nations housing for close to a century.
There isn’t a Canadian who has driven through a First Nations reserve who hasn’t wondered why the housing is so substandard compared to neighbouring communities. We’ve all asked, “What is wrong…with those people…with the First Nation…with the system…with the government?” Most of us haven’t known which question to ask because we don’t understand how housing is acquired on reserves. We mistakenly start with what we know about housing in the rest of Canada and that will not get us even close to how housing works in First Nations. From that assumption we presume the first question is the right one. “What is wrong with those people?”
I got a job working in Tsartlip First Nation as their housing manager in the mid 1990s. I had lived in the community for more than 20 years by then and had just finished a Masters Degree and it still took me several years to figure out what questions to ask.
The questions were difficult because it was hard to believe that Canada had actually bungled the First Nations housing file so badly for so long.
A little background: In the 1930s the country was reeling from the Great Depression and housing, including First Nations housing, was in a crisis. The federal government responded by creating two housing systems…one system for the mainstream; focused on providing affordable and accessible lending mechanisms, establishing building standards and driving job creation, and one system for First Nations; a welfare-style distribution of small batches of building supplies designed by an Indian agent (often from afar). There was no thought of standards, financial tools or jobs.
The reserve system blocked First Nations from housing themselves and literally forced them to accept the government programs. Oh a person could move off the reserve, you might say. Yes but if you did, as a First Nations person you would not be welcome in mainstream communities and so your housing prospects would not necessarily improve. The same is still true today.
By the 1940s it had become blatantly obvious that the system the government had for housing on reserves—let’s be perfectly clear, First Nations people and their leadership had no control of the system whatsoever—had never and could never produce adequate housing.
Now here’s the rub. When the system failed, as it did over and over again, government agents took that to mean First Nations were unable to be successfully housed and that they needed more ‘help’. The history of housing in First Nations is a series of government fixes—one program after the other trying to fix the previous failure. Never once, that I could find in the records, did the Indian Department contemplate that the problem might rest with government, not the First Nations.
Of course I didn’t, because, in the deeply rooted racist worldview of Canadians, we believed that Indigenous people were not capable of managing their own affairs.
So when you drive through a reserve and wonder why the housing is in such disarray there is an easy answer. Because Canadians believed that First Nations people were not capable of managing their own affairs the government did the managing. The Indian Department designed the programs and controlled how they would be delivered and the lion’s share of government funding for First Nations housing returned right back into the pockets of the enormous “Indian industry” of bureaucrats and professionals who operated the system. And what you are looking at, when you drive through a community and see the ramshackle houses, is the outcome of that arrangement.
Of course housing on Indian reserves (legal name) looks different than in the rest of Canada. Nowhere else in this country has such a housing system existed. No other group of Canadians has been subject to so many state controls over their houses. No one else in Canada is refused the opportunity to go to a bank borrow money to build or renovate a house simply because they live in a certain community.
It takes a bit to grapple with. Long after most residential schools had closed their doors government agents still controlled how First Nations people would be housed. The ill health and social disruption caused by unimaginably substandard housing continues in many communities to this day.
But if we look at it from different angle then think about the time when you drove through a reserve more recently and said, “Hey there’s some really nice houses going up. I wonder what’s happening.” What’s happening is that many First Nations are taking control of their housing. There’s still only a trickle of independently wealthy and sophisticatedly administered communities that have really repatriated control over their housing. But it’s happening for the first time in a century.
So you can see what happens when First Nations are in control. Housing improves and, given time, First Nations housing will meet the same standards as elsewhere.
So as I said earlier, it’s no wonder First Nations want to take back control over their own housing. What is really the wonder is that it wasn’t until this recent federal government took over the reigns of the Indian Department that it decided the government itself was the problem and it ought to get out of the business of delivering services on reserves. It’s still not convinced that First Nations can do it themselves but First Nations are taking control in any case. As my First Nations daughter, Joni, who is an elected councillor for Tsartlip First Nations said, “Mom, at some point it isn’t about what the government does or doesn’t do. The cat is out of the bag. We are taking control over our own lives. The government will just need to figure that out and adjust.”
But there are still so many questions: Will government acknowledge the destruction caused by its housing system? Will there be compensation? Building a new system is a colossal task, will there be enough support to ensure its success?