A ticking time bomb: The Housing Crisis in Manitoba First Nations

The poor condition and shortage of housing is causing a health crisis in FNs across Canada but particularly in the FN reserves of Island Lake, Manitoba. James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reported in July 2014 that housing in Canada’s Indigenous communities “has reached a crisis level” (Anaya cited in The Interim Report of the SCAP, 2015, p. 5). Many homes on reserves are in substandard condition, require major renovations or replacement to meet standards of adequacy: 44% of people living on reserves in 2006 lived in homes requiring major repairs, compared to 7% of the non-Aboriginal population, according to Anaya’s report. Harold Calla, Executive Chair, First Nations Financial Management Board reports a housing deficit of $3-$5 billion in Canada (SCAP, 2015).

Government documents state that Manitoba First Nations have the worst housing conditions in Canada. To eliminate mold and chronic overcrowding in Manitoba First nations alone it is estimated to cost $2 billion, which is 13 times higher than the national budget for FN housing for this year. A short film called Wasagamack’ housing crisis documents this (link housing crisis here). Chief David McDougall from Island Lake calls the housing situation a “ticking time bomb” with 1500 houses on the waiting list for the cluster of four reserves, including Wasagamack and Garden Hill FNs. The Chief documented 23 people living in a two-bedroom home where “they had to take turns sleeping”.

Overcrowding, combined with the use of poor-quality building materials, and insufficient funds to address maintenance problems places housing on reserves under much more severe strain than off-reserve housing. Further challenges stem from the isolation making it difficult to bring non-local materials on winter ice roads and permafrost causing foundations to shift and walls to crack. A 5-year apprenticeship program at Wasagamack had only 1 of its 20 trainees obtaining their level 1 apprenticeship, due to the theory training and testing requirements not being accessible without flying out.

Inadequate housing on reserve is linked to negative health impacts for both children and adults in addition to the destructive social impacts. A high incidence of mold growth exists in “the dilapidated housing that characterizes much of the shelter available to the Indigenous people of Canada”. Inadequacies and overcrowding of on-reserve housing are linked to higher incidence rates of: hepatitis, acute rheumatic fever, asthma and tuberculosis . Tuberculosis, a major public health problem for Canadian FN communities, is 9 times more prevalent in these communities than in Canada as a whole.

The shortage of on-reserve housing causes migration to larger urban centres and exacerbates young women’s and girls’ vulnerability to sex trade work and trafficking, particularly since affordable housing in urban centres to people without a rental history is difficult to access. Some people with inadequate on-reserve shelter have ended up homeless in Winnipeg and other cities. By linking the social and health impacts of the housing crisis on reserves will raise awareness about FN housing and share solutions.

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