Trilliums in Northern Ontario
Northern Ontario



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 cost?

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 include;

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 communities.
3. A system of ownership and distribution that encourages individual responsibility, potential economic return and personal pride in these homes.
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 establishments returned.

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 following reasons.

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 West.

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 winning artist.

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 communities.

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 centralized
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 enterprise.

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 other possessions.

- 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

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