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First Nations to regain control over own housing in B.C., after nearly 100 years

After decades of failed programs, the federal government is negotiating to return housing jurisdiction to First Nations in B.C. — and other provinces and territories could follow suit.

A historic change could be on the horizon for First Nations housing on and off reserve in British Columbia.

The Discourse has learned that a new authority is in the works in B.C. that will shift management and control over housing and infrastructure back to First Nations from the federal government, following decades of failed programs.

Specific details of the new B.C. authority’s structure and funding have yet to be determined. But the move is already being welcomed by housing experts working towards the transition who say it’s about time.

While First Nations in B.C. — which is home to about one-third of First Nations in Canada —  are leading efforts to return jurisdiction, Indigenous housing bodies in other provinces and territories are also examining their options for similar moves.

Jane Philpott, federal minister of Indigenous Services, confirmed to The Discourse by email that the government is working towards creating a First Nations-controlled housing and infrastructure authority in B.C. It is part of a government commitment “to working with First Nations communities on the design and delivery of their own services.”

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says federal officials are in discussions with First Nations in B.C. to transfer jurisdiction on housing. 

Martine Stevens, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, describes the government’s discussions with B.C. as still early, but says they “could inform other similar initiatives across the country.”

The issue has already been discussed at Assembly of First Nations housing and infrastructure forums in Montreal, Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Winnipeg in 2016 and 2017.

The new B.C. housing body will inherit a housing situation that many have described as a crisis. According to Statistics Canada, of the 334,390 First Nations people who reported living on reserve in the 2016 census, more than a third lived in overcrowded homes and 44 per cent lived in homes needing major repairs. Citing Assembly of First Nations and government of Canada figures, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples reported in 2015 that at least 35,000 new houses — and possibly as many as 85,000 new houses — would be needed to fix the shortfall.

In a 2014 report to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly, James Anaya, the special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, said housing in First Nations communities had “reached a crisis level.”

But changes now look to be coming in B.C.

Ts’il Kaz Koh elected Chief Dan George is chair of the First Nations Housing & Infrastructure Council of B.C., which, he says, is in high-level talks with the federal government about housing jurisdiction.

If jurisdiction is successfully turned over to a new B.C. body, then the 198 First Nations in B.C. will get decision-making power back over their own housing and infrastructure. George says the housing council has set 2019 as its target date to hand over jurisdiction to the new body.

Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation elected Chief Dan George is leading the effort to get jurisdiction over First Nations housing.

George remembers hearing stories of the houses his ancestors used to live in before the federal government imposed control over housing on his reserve in Burns Lake, 228 kilometres west of Prince George, nearly 100 years ago.

His people historically lived in “pit dwellings” that were mostly built underground with only the roof sticking up above ground. “It was built with a lot of ventilation so there was no condensation or mould,” George tells The Discourse.

After the federal government seized jurisdiction over housing on reserves in the 1930s, the pit dwellings, which had sustained the Ts’il Kaz Koh for centuries, became historical footnotes as its people were forced into then-modern housing.

“The white man wanted us to live like them. Housing was part of assimilation and our people didn’t have a say,” George says.

He looks forward to decision-making power being returned to his nation and all First Nations across B.C.

“It will be the happiest day of my career in housing, but especially for my colleagues who have been involved in it for the last 20 to 30 years,” George says. “First Nations get to have their input on how to develop and design the housing authority so it works for all First Nations.”

A surprise announcement

The arc of change began at a nondescript Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting in 2016 in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

George was attending an AFN technical committee meeting on housing and infrastructure when he caught wind that something was in the works on the federal side. But he never imagined what was about to transpire.

George says Carolyn Bennett, then the sole minister of Indigenous affairs (the portfolio has since been split between Bennett and Philpott), addressed the committee. Bennett spoke of change, he says, telling committee members that it was time to put in place Indigenous housing institutions — such as an Indigenous version of Canada’s Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Carolyn Bennett addresses the Assembly of First Nations at Niagara Falls in 2016.

Bennett declined to comment to The Discourse since she’s no longer assigned to the First Nations housing portfolio.

But George remembers thinking her words could only mean one thing: return jurisdiction to First Nations.

“We [the committee] looked at each other and said, ‘Did she just say what she did?’” he recalls. “Then it started to sink in. We thought, ‘Holy cow, this is huge!’”

B.C. First Nations leaders seized the moment. After returning to B.C., George says, they secured support from the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council to work with the federal government to pursue jurisdiction.

They formed the chiefs’ committee that George now chairs and then initiated formal talks with the federal government.

‘We can decide what we need’

Jurisdiction, George says, is about First Nations reclaiming sole responsibility for their own housing and infrastructure.

Once we have our own authority over our own housing we can decide what we need to do and how we need to do it for ourselves.”

Sylvia Olsen agrees that returning control over housing to First Nations is an essential first step to solving the housing crisis.

Olsen wrote her PhD thesis on the history of federal involvement in First Nations housing on reserve.

“People that don’t have control of their own housing decisions — there is no way to make that work,” she told The Discourse in an initial interview in February 2018.

“It won’t work until you hand over control to First Nations.”

In her dissertation on First Nations housing, Making Poverty: A History of On-reserve Housing Programs, 1930-1996, Olsen singles out unilateral federal control as a linchpin to the housing crisis.

The federal legacy of managing housing on reserve shows a series of mistakes since the feds took control in the 1930s, she says. Yet the government held onto its power for decades under the mistaken impression that First Nations couldn’t manage their own housing, she adds.

Olsen, who sits as a senior member on Dan George’s technical team negotiating jurisdiction, welcomes the government’s move to return decision-making power to First Nations.

Transferring jurisdiction on housing is part of a broader government plan to transfer responsibility of First Nations services to First Nations institutions, she told The Discourse in a follow-up interview in March 2018.

In the aftermath of the 2015 federal election, she notes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent a letter to every minister saying that no relationship is more important to Canada than that with Indigenous Peoples. “That was so significant,” she says.

In an email, Indigenous Services spokesperson Martine Stevens told The Discourse the move is meant to respect the distinct needs of each Indigenous group, something Indigenous leaders have advocated for.

But George speculates that the Liberal government may also see it as an opportunity to shed one of its most contentious portfolios, since the housing crisis has been difficult to solve so far.

A new body takes shape

The First Nations Housing & Infrastructure Council of B.C. is now negotiating to take over programs and services for housing and infrastructure on and off reserve from the federal government, and to transfer these responsibilities to a new Indigenous housing authority, George says.

The Indian Act, passed by the federal government in 1876 to control every aspect of First Nations life in Canada, won’t have to be amended to accommodate this jurisdictional transfer, Olsen says.

Stevens agrees, though she says legislative reforms will be considered if they’re required.

And the new system will be able to incorporate different types of First Nations land ownership, Olsen adds.

“It won’t work until you hand over control to First Nations.”

The housing council is also considering what the new housing authority’s relationship will be with B.C.’s treaty nations, who began negotiating their own agreements with the province starting in the late 1990s and still receive housing services from Indigenous Services Canada. It’s unlikely that any of the nations in B.C. will be able to opt out of dealing with the new authority, George says.

Council officials have also talked to the province about assuming jurisdiction over First Nations housing off reserve, George adds.

The B.C. Assembly of First Nations hosted a housing and infrastructure forum in Victoria in 2017, and hopes to host another this year. It’s already begun public consultations with B.C. First Nations and plans to host more in the coming weeks.

George says public engagement with First Nations will shape the structure of the new authority.

It’s too early in the process to say how it will be staffed or what kind of annual budget it requires, he says, though the new body will be funded by the federal government for the foreseeable future.

“We don’t want to structure it ourselves, or even think about that,” he says. “We want everybody’s input on how First Nations want it structured in B.C. — it’s not up to us to decide.”

The First Nations Health Authority model in B.C., which is divided into regional offices, has come up in public outreach, he notes. If the new body follows a similar regional arrangement, offices should consider choosing locations close to communities.

Participants at the Victoria forum also stressed the need for greater flexibility to manage their own funding across fiscal years, a report from the forum notes.

“We need to be in a position to borrow money and to manage finances in a modern day world in order to move forward, which means managing debt, assets, wealth and programs and services,” the report says. The same concern was noted in a report on First Nations housing and infrastructure engagement in Atlantic Canada.

Funding flexibility could be in the offing, a source close to the federal negotiations says. With more flexibility, the nations could invest the funds and bring in other financial partners, the source tells The Discourse. “I think it’s going to give them a lot of leeway without having the government always standing over them watching what the decisions are.”

The challenges

Despite the return of housing autonomy to First Nations and the prospect of funding flexibility, the new B.C. body will face a host of challenges, its supporters acknowledge.

Olsen says many nations will have to clarify their home-ownership rules before the government hands over jurisdiction.

A more significant challenge is abstract: shifting the paradigm from a century of repeated failures that federal jurisdiction over First Nations housing created, to a new mindset where First Nations have control over their own destiny. “Getting over the fear that the failed program that we know might be better than a potential failure in the future,” Olsen says.

“We want to run with it right now, before the government changes.”

Dan George says building skills and capacity will be a challenge as well.

Housing manager positions in First Nations aren’t directly funded right now, he points out, even though housing is often a tribe’s biggest asset. Allocating consistent salaries for housing managers would help stock the capacity pool of skilled administrators and keep those positions staffed, he suggests.

Olsen says that the federal government faces its own challenges with the transfer, as well, namely what to do with the bureaucracy that currently administers First Nations housing. “This sounds trite but one of the biggest problems they’re going to face is what do they do with their million-dollar staff? They have a bureaucracy that’s all set up; what do they do without it? That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Hope for the future  

For Olsen, getting First Nations jurisdiction over First Nations housing would fulfill a dream she’s had since moving onto the Tsartlip reserve in Victoria and having children several decades ago.

When she heard about Carolyn Bennett’s comments at the Niagara Falls meeting in 2016, she says, “I actually did that thing — where you once in awhile in your life say, ‘This might actually happen.’”

“I just have got to live long enough to see that happen,” she adds.

Olsen hopes that once the new Indigenous body assumes jurisdiction, it won’t become risk-averse — afraid to break new ground out of fear of doing something wrong.

“This isn’t about, ‘Is the government going to let us do it?’” Olsen says. “No. It’s like, now that you’ve opened the door, it ain’t ever going to shut.”

Martine Stevens from the Indigenous Services ministry says it hasn’t established a timeline to finish negotiations with B.C., but says the government “is committed to working closely with Indigenous partners” to expedite the housing strategies.

But George notes that a federal election is looming in 2019, and that a potential change in government could affect the creation of the new housing authority.

“We want to run with it right now, before the government changes. Get as much done, and get things legally binding, so that the next government has to work with us doing the same thing,” he says.

Along with renewed decision-making power, George hopes First Nations will develop a new way of looking at their housing too.

“Bands need to take care of houses like an asset and look after them like an asset,” he suggests. “Housing can be a band’s biggest asset or biggest sinkhole and money pit.”


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

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