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A dilapidated house in the Ucluelet First Nation.

First Nations elders live in ‘third-world’ conditions as federally financed homes decay

The head of Ucluelet First Nation in B.C. says the federal government should fix the houses it left to rot, but Ottawa says it’s not responsible for their upkeep.

Walking through some of the houses in his First Nation on the remote West Coast of Vancouver Island, Les Doiron can’t help but notice the poorly constructed foundations and crumbling roofs, the single-pane windows, the flimsy doors and thin insulation — and the mould. “The wind goes through these places,” the president of the Ucluelet nation says.

“We inherited 30 homes from the federal government that might as well have been condemned — that’s how we started our journey as a self-governing First Nation,” Doiron told The Discourse. “We got land and title, but we also got third-world houses that we ended up responsible for after treaty. Our people deserve better.”

The Ucluelet housing story is a cautionary tale for other B.C. First Nations. After nearly 100 years of failed government programs and a housing situation on reserve that many — including the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples — have described as a crisis, a historic change of power is now on the horizon. Ottawa is expected to return housing jurisdiction to 65 First Nations negotiating self-governance treaties, and possibly to 198 more nations through a new First Nations housing body in the works in B.C. (which is home to about one-third of First Nations in Canada).

But even as the federal government prepares to relinquish control over some First Nations’ housing, it’s unlikely to provide the additional resources that some advocates say are desperately needed to repair or rebuild these crumbling houses originally built through the government’s subsidies.

Sylvia Olsen finds this prospect “terrifying.”

Olsen, who sits on the new First Nations housing body in B.C., says: “When treaties are signed, or when the housing is turned over to First Nations, they’re going to have a stock of absolutely dilapidated houses … without the resources to deal with it.”

No comprehensive record exists tracking all the government-subsidized houses now crumbling on reserves across B.C. and the rest of Canada. But Olsen, who wrote her PhD on the First Nations housing crisis, says the problem is widespread.

The 30 homes in Ucluelet are part of a bigger picture, agrees Kevin Hart, the Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who is the AFN’s point person on national housing. “Even though it’s 2018, our people are still living in these kinds of shacks across Canada.”

“Right now, I need $3.3 billion to address the current housing crisis just in Manitoba alone, and we’re not talking about water or infrastructure needs yet,” Hart told The Discourse. “We need 225,000 homes in all 634 First Nations across Canada just to meet the existing need.”

Federal and Indigenous officials point fingers at each other when asked who owns the Ucluelet and other nations’ federally financed crumbling homes — and who is responsible for their repair or replacement now.

It’s not the federal government’s responsibility, says Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Edith Pedneault.

The government has provided subsidies to eligible First Nations for the construction and renovation of houses on reserve since the 1980s, she told The Discourse by email. But it doesn’t own the homes and is not responsible for their ongoing upkeep, though some nations may be eligible to apply for more subsidies to cover renovations, she notes.

Bottom line, she says, is that it’s “the First Nation’s responsibility to decide, based on its housing policies, who owns the house” — whether that’s the nation as a community or individual homeowners who are members of the nation.

Government “housing subsidies are not meant to cover the full cost of construction or renovations,” Pedneault added. “First Nation equity or other sources for funding are often required.”

Les Doiron brings a fish to Elder Rose Wilson, as she looks on from her porch.

That’s not good enough, Ucluelet president Les Doiron says. Without the means to completely repair or even replace these homes, Doiron wonders how his First Nation, and others in line to regain control over their own housing, will shelter their people without falling into a debt they can’t repay and, he says, never should have had to shoulder to begin with.

“The feds think they offloaded housing, then washed their hands and moved on,” Doiron says. “But they’re a thousand miles away and it’s easy to forget. For us, it’s always present. We see those houses every day.”

How the houses crumbled

When Doiron drives through Ittatsoo, one of several village sites in the Ucluelet First Nation’s territory, which is home to 250 people (with another 450 living off reserve), he sees more than 30 homes he describes as old INAC homes, subsidized and built under former Indian and Northern Affairs Canada programs.

Built in the 1970s and ’80s, the tattered structures remind him of his nation’s painful past — a past it tried to escape through the self-governance treaty it signed, along with four other nations 12 years ago, to form the Maa-nulth Treaty with the B.C. and federal governments, which was meant to resolve land title and rights, and return decision-making powers to the nations.

Ucluelet housing coordinator Marilyn Touchie sees common denominators in the structural problems that now plague these houses, several of which have roofs draped with ragged plastic tarps that do little to keep out the rain. They lack perimeter drains, she says, their crawl spaces are unfinished, and there’s no insulation under the houses.

“They’re in pretty tough shape now,” she told The Discourse.

Another common denominator: from foundation to roof, the houses weren’t built for  Ucluelet, Doiron says. Ittatsoo is squeezed between a rainforest on one side and the corrosive salt water of a bay on the other. The combination is like a one-two knockout punch for most man-made structures here.

“The material these houses are made out of isn’t made to withstand this climate,” he says.

Doiron doubts the houses were built to B.C.’s Building Code standards, or ever inspected.

But Pedneault, from Indigenous Services Canada, says the housing projects funded by the government since 1980 had to “meet or exceed the British Columbia Building codes as determined by a qualified inspector.” Though it’s the nation’s or band member’s responsibility to ensure that contractors follow the code, she adds.

Still, she admits that government records from these housing subsidies only date back to the 1980s, which means the government has no way to confirm what guidelines contractors may have followed when some of the Ucluelet’s 30 crumbling homes were built in the 1970s.

Finding band records for these homes — and pinpointing specifically which programs governed their construction and under what terms — is equally difficult. It’s like looking for a needle in a very old bureaucratic haystack, Touchie says.

Marilyn Touchie stands in front of the community’s youth centre, which had to be closed, in part because mould makes the air too hard to breathe.

Touchie doesn’t blame the previous band councils who oversaw the construction of Ittatsoo’s 30 crumbling houses, or the nation members who helped build them under the direction of outside contractors. Those houses were hamstrung from the beginning, she says. The government “didn’t give them much to work with. They did the best they could but corners were cut because resources were limited from the start.”

Doiron says he can also point to examples of poor construction that are much more recent than the 1970s.

The plumbing was substandard in one house built in the past six years, he says, because the contractor used the wrong materials. “The contractor used plumbing components used in an RV,” he says.

Why don’t you just bulldoze them?

Asked why the Ucluelet First Nation doesn’t just bulldoze these homes now and start over, Doiron says he wishes he could, but the nation, which historically struggled with high unemployment since the collapse of its fishery, can’t afford it.

The Ucluelet don’t have the money to tear down and replace all 30 homes. According to their housing officer, Marilyn Touchie, tearing down costs $80,000 per home and rebuilding would cost approximately $200,000 per home. Multiply that by 30 homes and it’s $8.4 million total. And that’s not counting the costs of sheltering displaced families during construction.

“I’d love to bulldoze them all down because I hate to see the conditions that our people live in,” Doiron says. “But who is going to pay for it? We just don’t have enough money. I hate it, but I can’t stop it. My hands are tied.”

Doiron unequivocally blames the federal government for the conditions in which his people now have to survive, and says Indigenous Services should pay up to fix the problem.

“Those were built through INAC programs with INAC money back in the day,” he says. “The band had nowhere else to turn for housing money then. They had no choice but to use those programs.”

Veronica Williams’ door is being eroded by rust, and the lights can’t be turned on in the rain because the water runs through the fixtures’ exposed wires.

The AFN’s Kevin Hart agrees, though he concedes that First Nations are responsible for dilapidated houses located on their land. But the Ucluelet are “between a rock and a hard place,” he points out. And the federal government created that hard place.

“They chronically underfunded First Nations housing,” he says, “and this has created debt in the communities and has made them debt ridden.”

Pedenault says Indigenous Services and its predecessor INAC have provided eligible First Nations with housing subsidies for more than 30 years, and that some nations can still apply for funding now, both for homes owned by the band and by individual members, depending on the nation’s housing policy.

Nations like the Ucluelet that have signed self-governance treaties may also be eligible for continued housing subsidies, she adds, if housing is not already included in their Fiscal Financing Agreement.

But the Maa-nulth treaty, which the Ucluelet signed, contains housing program funding, she says — “including new housing and maintenance and replacement of existing housing, in their Fiscal Financing Agreement” — so it’s only eligible for additional “special targeted initiative funding,” she says.

But Doiron says there’s not enough housing money in the treaty. There isn’t even enough money to govern overall, he says. “Our treaty is amazing and has some benefits. But we don’t have enough money to implement it. We need a shit-ton more money to do what we need to do.”

A former senior official with the Ucluelet government agrees: there isn’t enough housing money in the financing agreement to solve this problem.

There is money for housing maintenance and replacement in the agreement, but this year’s allowance was only $150,000, says the official, who asked not to be named.

The housing fund is financed with whatever happens to be left over in the Ucluelet government’s budget at the end of each year, the official explains. This year’s leftover money wouldn’t even cover the teardown and rebuilding of just one house and funding isn’t consistent or guaranteed from year to year.

The 30 homeowners are eligible to apply for a piece of those leftovers, she says, but they’re competing for such a small amount. The nation’s housing committee tries to assess the applications and prioritize the needs but can’t do anymore than hand out band-aids for rotting houses, the official says.

“Elders live in some of those houses and we try and do what we can for them,” Touchie says.

Through the photographer’s eyes

Renny Mundy runs a chain through a hole in his wall and his rotting door to lock it. His south wall consists only of drywall, exposed insulation and a thin layer of mouldy siding, he showed photographer Darran Chaisson. Read Chaisson’s first-person account of what he found in Ucluelet. Darran Chaisson/The Discourse

Treaty nations don’t want to inherit ‘condemned homes’

If the federal government doesn’t step up with new funding to replace the rotting homes that the Ucluelet and other First Nations have inherited, academic Sylvia Olsen says the on-reserve “housing disaster is going to continue for the next generation.”

The Discourse asked Pedneault at Indigenous Services if funds from the $600 million promised in this year’s federal budget to support First Nations housing on reserve over the next three years could be used to repair or replace these old INAC homes. “Budget 2018 funds for regions are being finalized at this time,” she replied by email, without elaboration.

The AFN’s Kevin Hart says First Nations negotiating modern-day treaties in B.C. are uniquely positioned to push the federal government to repair or replace these old INAC homes before they agree to sign off on their self-governance treaties.

There are 65 First Nations currently negotiating modern-day treaties under the B.C. Treaty Process. Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments follow a six-stage negotiation process, with the fifth stage focused on listing the items to be negotiated. But of seven First Nations currently in stage five, none list repairing or replacing old INAC houses specifically as an item for negotiation.

According to one official with the First Nations Summit — a forum where First Nations negotiating treaties can discuss negotiations and related issues — the question of repairing or replacing old INAC houses hasn’t been raised as an issue at its meetings. The BC Treaty Commission, which facilitates negotiations between B.C. First Nations and governments, didn’t respond to The Discourse’s requests for comment by deadline.

Still, there is a case to be made for repairing or replacing old INAC houses in modern-day treaty negotiations, Hart maintains. Housing on reserves is the federal government’s fiduciary responsibility, he says, and it’s the federal government’s chronic underfunding of housing that led to the condition that old INAC homes are now in.

First Nations are “not pursuing this treaty to inherit shacks and condemned homes. They need to start out with adequate homes in their First Nations,” Hart says.

The former official with the Ucluelet government, who asked not to be named, is hopeful that something might change after the nation’s financing agreement expires in 2019. Early negotiations have begun between the federal government and several First Nations whose agreements are set to expire soon, she says. The new agreements are supposed to be financed based on the actual costs to self-govern, she says — and housing is on the list for reconsideration.

The federal government has the money to invest more in First Nations housing, Hart says. “They just spent $4.5 billion to buy that pipeline from Kinder Morgan. Can you imagine what that would do to address First Nations housing?”

Back in Ittatsoo, Les Doiron ponders where his nation is now.

The Ucluelet have their own treaty and can enact their own laws and bylaws, and they are living in the era of reconciliation. That’s a far cry from where they were before treaty, he says.

But the decayed INAC houses in his village remind him that the era they tried to escape is still very much here.

“You know, we need to tear down those houses and rebuild them, and Canada needs to pony up with housing and infrastructure money to do it,” he says. “We’re trying to implement our treaty, but we can’t implement it and go forward until we deal with those houses.”


This piece was edited by Robin Perelle, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim and photography by Darran Chaisson. The Discourse’s executive editor is Rachel Nixon.