Politics in Northern Ontario
First Nation Housing
The Challenge and the Opportunity
November 23, 2005
- John Caruso
The issue of sub-standard housing
within Canada’s First Nations presents a daunting challenge for First
Nations leaders and the Government of Canada.
Having said this, I believe that for every challenge there is an
opportunity. It is from this perspective that I offer the following.
History should have taught our leaders that the issues surrounding the
construction and maintenance of culturally appropriate, quality homes on
First Nations are not solved by letting contracts to outside firms to
build or repair these dwellings. One only needs to visit communities
where this has occurred to see the poor quality of construction and
materials used. From press board siding to single pane glass, the homes
are neither appropriate for the severe winter conditions to which they
are exposed, nor are they designed to accommodate the needs of the
families for whom they were built.
In addition, the method employed on the majority of First Nations for
the distribution of housing to Band members is fraught with potential
political motivations and lacks any dimension of pride of personal
ownership or responsibility for maintenance and upkeep by the occupants.
It was announced this week that the Government of Canada attempted to
ship building material by barge to Kashechewan to be used for repairs to
existing homes. The need to repair these homes, so that evacuees can
return to their community is pressing. Unfortunately, ice on James Bay
has prevented the barge from accessing the community. The plan now is to
transport these materials, at untold expense, by plane. It was also
reported that some 100 community members had returned to the community
to work on these home repairs.
This is a tough and pressing issue. The need to repair these homes to
the point of a base level of livability is the key to returning these
people to their community. However, the Government understands that
these repairs provide a short term solution only.
The Government of Canada has committed to building 50 new homes a year
for the next 10 years in Kashechewan. This will involve moving the
community to higher ground and constructing new infrastructure,
including, a school, hospital, fire protection, Band administration
facilities, and a recreation complex.
It has been estimated by the Federal Government that 80,000 new homes
are required to meet the housing deficit within Canada’s First Nation
Communities. Assuming that the Government is genuinely committed to
meeting these housing needs, the question then becomes how and at what
Many of the First Nations which are experiencing the most dire housing
needs are not accessible by roads. That is not to say that they are the
only First Nations with housing needs, however I believe that the need
in the isolated communities is acute with current conditions that are
deplorable by any standard.
Clearly by employing past methods of construction and distribution the
Government and First Nations risk a repeat of the conditions which they
currently face. A new strategy must be found that achieves more than the
provision of additional housing stock in First Nations communities.
I suggest that First Nations and Government need to agree on a set of
goals to be achieved through the provision of the 500 homes in
Kashechewan and the 80,000 units required Canada wide. These could
1. The development of construction skills of First Nations people to be
used on First Nations.
2. The design of appropriate, quality housing for residents of these
3. A system of ownership and distribution that encourages individual
responsibility, potential economic return and personal pride in these
4. Sustained employment opportunities for First Nation’s people.
When one thinks about ownership of housing within First Nations that
endure unemployment rates upwards of 80%, one would ask how these people
would raise the funds required to have a financial stake in their homes.
The answer to this may lie in the redevelopment of inner city
neighborhoods in Chicago.
An important case study in community development describes how an area
of Chicago that had been abandoned was repopulated. The homes in this
neighborhood had been vandalized and gutted. While the shells remained
in tact they were not habitable. Through sweat equity the residents of
the area were offered an opportunity to acquire these homes and to
resurrect them. Training courses were offered in carpentry, plumbing,
electrical, drywall and painting. Time spent working on the homes and
attending these classes was calculated as their equity in the ownership
of the homes.
The transference of these skills spawned the start up of small
businesses and contributed to individual self worth and self
sufficiency. Credit unions opened in these neighborhoods and retail
I believe that this Chicago example and others like it can be helpful to
achieve long term community development goals in First Nation
communities. To achieve these goals I suggest that national and local
First Nations organizations work with the Government of Canada to create
an aboriginal modular home construction business.
With hands-on support from Government, a partnership could be formed
with a leading Canadian manufacturer of modular homes. The company would
be controlled by the a National First Nations organization, using the
same formula that has been negotiated by the James Bay Cree and the
Attawapiskat First Nation in agreements for the development of the James
Bay Hydro Electric project and the Debeers Diamond Project.
In this model the private sector partner owns 49% of the enterprise
while the First Nations organization owns 51%.
This new company, in consultation with First Nation communities, would
develop a selection of home designs that families and communities could
choose from. These designs would offer families the space needed to
accommodate their families and would offer floor plans, and
configurations, that would engender pride and ensure a consistent
standard of quality construction.
Canada is home to a number of well established modular home
manufacturing companies. These homes are built under a controlled
environment to exacting standards, and are shipped by container across
the country and indeed around the world. Modular homes are shipped to
the construction site and assembled like Lego blocks. There is no
material wastage and the quality of the homes is not subject to the
availability of local material supplies and skilled labour. In addition,
the cost of transport is reduced as the containers are a standard size,
with the components of each home packaged within them
The expertise of the private sector company would be critical to this
joint- venture’s ultimate success. Their knowledge and expertise in the
engineering, planning, manufacturing, production, cost control,
training, quality control and shipping process would be key ingredients
to a successful partnership. The commitment to construct 50 homes per
year for the next 10 years for Kashechewan presents an excellent
platform for the development and launch of this initiative.
While one may suggest that such an enterprise be located on a First
Nation, I suggest that this may not be the best strategy. While I
appreciate that this may not sit well with some First Nation’s leaders,
I believe that the Indian Act presents serious barriers to private
sector investment on First Nations lands.
I suggest that a community such as Cochrane, Ontario would be an
excellent location for the operation of this proposed enterprise for the
1. Cochrane is located on the Ontario Northland rail line with rail
access to Moosonee on the James Bay coast, and points South, East, and
2. The Mayor of the town of Cochrane is the former Grand Chief of the
Mushkegowuk Council. Mayor Martin is respected within First Nations
communities and has made a successful transition to municipal politics.
In addition, Mayor Martin is a successful business person and Juno award
3. Cochrane has close ties to the Cree First Nations of the James Bay
region and the Ojibwa nations of Northeastern Ontario.
4. The Town of Cochrane has the municipal infrastructure and strategic
connections with training providers to ensure that this enterprise has
the local supports required during set-up and ongoing operations.
In addition to the development of a manufacturing plant for these
modular homes, there will be a need to establish teams of workers in
each community to prepare the footings and to assemble the homes on
site. This would be an integral part of the strategy as the skills
learnt by these workers would form the nucleus of a home construction
and maintenance industry in each First Nation where these homes are
erected. Families would participate in the erection and interior
finishing of the homes and their efforts would be calculated as their
equity contribution. The families, who purchase these homes through
sweat equity, would also be entitled to sell them to other Band members
as is the case in some First Nation communities.
I do not suggest that this is a simple project, nor have I undertaken a
complete financial or operational analysis, however, I believe that the
concept warrants serious consideration by Government and First Nation
leaders. The construction and provision of 500 homes in Kashechewan, and
80,000 homes across Canada must be embraced as an opportunity to create
the basis for a new beginning and new economy for our First Nation
My suggestions regarding organizational format are not carved in stone,
and are subject to further analysis and discussion. I would not want
this idea to get bogged down by the details.
There are examples of innovative business models servicing the economic
and employment needs of First Nations people across Canada. The
Co-op model serving the retail needs of Northern Saskatchewan First
Nations has the potential for transference to Northern Ontario and could
form the basis for the launch of this home construction and erection
The need for housing on First Nations in Northern Ontario and across
Canada must be seen as a challenge and as an opportunity by Government
and First Nations leaders. The time to think out of the box is now!
Home ownership and the pride that comes with it are the foundations of
communities and families, in every culture worldwide. No matter how
simple, we value our homes and the treasures within them, above all
- John Michael Caruso
John is the President of the Northern Consulting Group. He worked for
the Government of Canada for 20 years delivering community economic
development and industrial adjustment programs. He has owned and
operated a small manufacturing business in Sudbury and is the past chair
of the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation. He is currently pursuing
his passion for community economic development as a consultant and as a
graduate student at the University of Cape Breton.
John can be reached at
Return to Homepage
Visit Other Sections