What First Nations are saying about their housing

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?


Receiving the drum and shawl in appreciation for my work–thank you thank you thank you–I got it COVID style

It’s so easy to be thankful. Waking up in the morning is enough to fill our hearts with thanks…for life…for love…for a place to live…for daffodils. Then there are the everyday things for which we give thanks. Thanks for taking out the garbage. Thanks for washing the dishes. Thanks for remembering my birthday.

The older I get the more I find myself expressing my thankfulness. Thanks for smiling and laughing out loud, it brings such joy into the world.

It’s also easy to receive thanks. I love to hear “Thank you” for taking out the garbage or doing the dishes (on those seldom occasions).

I’m not as good at receiving expressions of appreciation for the big things I do. I have a strange need to undermine my work and deflect attention away. Maybe it was my mother who taught us that pride was not just wrong but it was the worst of all moral failings. Or maybe it was the church that buried any exceptionalness of women under the accomplishments of men (other than our ability to cook and the like). Or maybe it’s my whiteness and having worked in First Nations all my life it’s never been my place to call attention to my work.

Whatever it is I find accepting big expressions of appreciation much harder to receive than to give. But I’m embracing this one. Here’s the story.

I’ve been working with the most amazing team—five First Nations people from around the province (Doug Harris, Niki Lindstrom, Marilyn Johnny, Bev Smith and Mona Bill) on an engagement project—talking about the upcoming changes in housing and infrastructure in First Nations. After almost a year I’m passing the project along to someone else and moving on.

The team showed me huge appreciation…an Orca drum, a shawl and words and words and words of gratitude. I felt it and I thank them back.

Thank you for thanking me.


Kerry Black and Jim Munro, from the FNHIC team

Save the date. I am doing that thing that people do…retiring. I’m not retiring me. I’m retiring my current work. I think there is a difference.

I eat and sleep housing. You’ve probably heard me say it before…that the work goes on and on and on… Working on housing can never stop, not until everyone has a safe, life-affirming place to be and to become.

I also live and work in the First Nations housing field and have done for what feels like forever. It started almost 50 years ago when I moved to Tsartlip FN and I realized that Canada was not the country I had imagined. It was the housing that struck me first. How can this be Canada? That when I crossed the road and realized that the people over on the reserve side didn’t have access to decent housing? How can it be that my hard working husband and I cannot borrow money or find any way to build our family an adequate home?

Later when I worked as Tsartlip’s housing manager I began to figure out how deeply rooted the problem was and how the housing system was a manifestation of the racist government housing programs– strong words but the programs were, in fact, the problem itself. I knew there was only one solution. First Nations needed to take back control of their housing…government bureaucrats were absolutely the wrong people to be making the decisions.

A lot has happened since the 1990s when I started working in the housing field. These days I work with a team of First Nations people, working towards the transfer of the care and control of housing from the Government of Canada to First Nations authority. If that sounds like a strange job, it is. Why, you might ask, in 2020, would Canada still have control over housing in First Nations? That was the topic of my Phd dissertation and I can’t answer that question in a few paragraphs. However, for now it is enough to say that Trudeau’s Liberals have finally resolved to get out of the business of delivering housing services to First Nations.

In 2016 the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, then Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced that the federal government would support the creation of First Nations institutions to replace the Indian Department. “Perhaps you might want to build your own CMHC,” she said. She was speaking in Ottawa to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs’ Committee and Housing and Infrastructure (CCoHI). I was a member of the committee as one of the BC technical reps. I heard what she said. As soon as we got home the other two BC reps and I got together and wrote a proposal to get the government to put their money where their mouth was.

We began to organize. If government was going to get out of the business we were going to be ready. In fact we were not going to wait for the government to “give back” control we were going to go and get it.

BC First Nations are like that. They were the first in Canada to take control of their own health services, they have world-class programs for the homeless and are innovative leaders in FNs education. They worked with the provincial government to turn UNDRIP into DRIP-A, the first legislation of its kind in the country.

BC First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) said yes, let’s establish our own authority. In 2019 they mandated the BC First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council (FNHIC) to create an institution and to make the transfer a reality.

It’s an unimaginably complex task. We have been listening to First Nations for several years. Their responses include “Yes we need to take control. The sooner the better.” “We have to make sure we don’t just mirror the mess already in place.” “I am excited to make our own mistakes and to fix them.” “Don’t transfer the government’s disaster onto our table without the means and the capacity to solve the problems.” “There are so many ways to improve. Let’s get started.” “Let’s make the new authority a truly by First Nations, for First Nations institution.”

Rarely do we get to be a part of finding the solutions to the big problems. Rarely do we get the opportunity to work with people who share the same vision and assume the responsibility to actually make it happen.

I got to do just that. For three years I’ve worked with the FNHIC developing the engagement strategy, creating teams of First Nations experts to do the work, listening to hundreds of First Nations people share their visions and concerns. I’ve written policy papers and analyzed government documents. I’ve worked with First Nations across the country as well as teams from the federal and provincial governments.

The next question is how do you stop doing the thing you have dreamed about? When does the time come to leave the dynamic group of people you helped create? The answers began to emerge in my mind after I rounded the bend towards the magic number of retirement. “I’m 65,” I would say to others. To myself I would say “I am 65 and most other 65 year old grandmothers are not getting up at 5 am for the first flight, travelling all over the country and living out of a suitcase.” When COVID 19 put an end to all of that I began to work more than ever. There would be no end to it. Unless I put an end to it. So I will and I have.

It’s the right time for me to move over. The space I occupy should be filled with younger energetic First Nations visionaries. This is their thing. I helped bring yesterday to today and will always be there to help bring today to tomorrow but I’m stepping over and out. January 1st I will reduce my input into FNHIC to a single project contract. By March I will be writing a paper for them and when that paper goes to print I am done.

Like I said. I’m not retiring. I’m retiring this work…perhaps the most important work of my life. Right now I’m thinking about what Kenny Rogers said “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…”

I will continue to contribute to the field, mostly by writing about it. This will not be the last you will hear from me on the topic of housing on reserves in Canada – promise.