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Ivey International Centre for Health Innovation

Housing for health: Why social housing is imperative to improving Aboriginal health conditions

  • Joie Chow
  • |
  • Feb 13, 2017
Housing for health: Why social housing is imperative to improving Aboriginal health conditions

“I speak of a Canada where men and women of aboriginal ancestry, of French and British heritage, of the diverse cultures of the world, demonstrate the will to share this land in peace, in justice, and with mutual respect.”
Pierre Trudeau, 1982

 “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.”
The Right Honorable Justin Trudeau, 2015

For decades, Prime Ministers have spoken of their intention to remediate the damaged relationship between the government and the First Nations Metis and Inuit (FNMI) community. Despite this, the federal government has promised to build just 300 new homes in FNMI communities Canada-wide, a number that barely scratches the surface of the housing crisis. It is estimated that 20,000 homes are needed to reduce overcrowding, poor housing conditions, and homelessness in FNMI communities.

A lack of housing infrastructure has led to overcrowding. In Attawapiskat, a community in Northern Ontario, an average of 7 individuals reside in a home, with some housing up to 13 people. The housing crisis has accelerated the already worsening conditions of Attawapiskat, where reserve leaders recently declared a state of emergency over suicide attempts—28 of the 2,000 individuals living on the reserve tried to take their lives this March alone.

Housing issues are not limited to the community of Attawapiskat. Canada-wide, 26% of First Nations on reserves live in crowded homes, defined as homes with more than one person per room. Additionally, 1 in 3 live in homes that require major repair, compared to 1 in 12 other Canadians. The lack of sustainable housing in FNMI communities has created a myriad of problems including homelessness, strained family relations, substance abuse, and mental and physical illness. Recent research has shown a significant correlation between sustainable housing and overall health.

Poor living spaces are widely considered to be environmental determinants of health associated with both adolescents and adults. According to Statistics Canada, inadequate housing leads to mental health problems, violence, and family tensions. Additionally for adults, the added stress can lead to parenting difficulties. For their children, stressful living environments can stunt emotional and intellectual development. Thus, FNMI children are more likely to exhibit behavioural problems.

Without sustainable housing, individuals with chronic illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, lack the resources to treat their diseases as they do not have a safe place to store and administer drugs. This issue is exacerbated in FNMI communities, where rates of chronic illness are comparatively higher; for example, rates of type II diabetes peak at 26%, rates 3-5 times higher than those of the general population.

The separate but related issue of FNMI homelessness presents another series of health problems. While the reasons for homelessness remain a complex combination of historical, cultural, and societal issues, in 2010, the Council to Homeless Persons found the lack of subsidized housing in Canada to be a significant contributor to rates of FNMI homelessness. Additionally, a study completed at York University suggests that a disproportionate amount of homeless individuals are of Aboriginal descent, with Aboriginals consisting of up to of the homeless community in Canadian urban cities. In Toronto, where over 1,000 FNMI families are waiting for social housing, 33% of homeless individuals identify as FNMI, despite only 1% of the general population identifying as such.

Homelessness has a significant negative impact on one’s health, as it increases the risk of a multitude of diseases including tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, and respiratory infections. This impact is magnified in the FMNI community, as the population already suffers from higher rates of chronic disease (diabetes, HIV/AIDS, hypertension), mental health issues, and substance abuse compared to other Canadians. National data reveals that FNMI individuals have a lower life expectancy by more than six years, and are three times more likely to commit suicide compared to the average Canadian.

The link between sustainable housing and good health is unmistakable, and the current funding allocation of $268 million is not enough. In Manitoba alone, the Department of Indigenous Affairs estimates housing needs exceed $3.3 billion. If nothing is done, Indigenous Affair Minister Carolyn Bennett estimates that the housing shortage on reserves will rise from 20,000 to 115,000 units by 2031.

Brent Stonefish, Director of Indigenous Affairs at Western University, suggests that the current funding is not only insufficient, but misallocated. He states that putting money into building standard houses fails to fix the housing crisis for two reasons. Firstly, communities lack the funding and resources to maintain modern housing infrastructure; therefore, buildings often go unfinished or deteriorate quickly. Secondly, each reserve is unique. While some demand new houses for families, others would rather have existing infrastructure repaired.

Ultimately, Stonefish emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As such, he states that the answer to the housing crisis is to involve each individual Aboriginal community in the process of building their own sustainable housing.  Since government involvement fails to provide resources that allow for an individualized approach, Stonefish suggests utilizing non-profit organizations.

Non-profits provide housing that tailors uniquely to communities. For example, the organization Habitat for Humanity builds sustainable housing in exchange for home-owner involvement. Through this process, home-owners can gain invaluable skills that empower them to maintain their house. Through their Indigenous Housing Program, Habitat for Humanity has already sponsored 150 families. Additional donations can provide even more resources to support more housing projects.

Similarly, affordable housing programs have been implemented in Manitoba, where Indigenous Activist group, Idle No More, partnered with Mini Homes Manitoba to build a sustainable house for an FNMI family. At an approximate cost of $15,000, these mini homes are more affordable to purchase and maintain. Additionally, the homes can be built where accessible resources are located and delivered on wheels to reserves, bypassing the cost of shipping multiple materials. If the $268 million budget were allocated to building mini homes, over 15,000 houses could be built.

For Aboriginals looking for sustainable housing in cities, Stonefish suggests a mixed approach that involves both stress-free housing and community outreach. Therefore, organizations such as Housing First, an initiative that provides homeless individuals with immediate, permanent housing before any housing readiness requirements are demanded, should be utilized to solve the situation in cities. In addition, Stonefish advocates for friendship centres and harm reduction programs to be offered after individuals receive a home.

The solutions to the housing crisis may lie within local, non-profit organizations, but ultimately, funding must come from the government. Prime Minister Trudeau, echoing the words of his late father, must advocate for the reallocation of funds and truly consider the needs of Aboriginal communities. Looking to the U.S. as an example, the Dakota Pipeline protests have demonstrated that allyship between Native communities and other organizations is possible. Words must manifest into actions, and Canada must take responsibility for providing all its citizens with basic human rights.

Joie Chow is a dual-degree student in the Honors Business Administration program at the Ivey Business School and the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program at Western University.


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