CBC News / Allison Dempster/ Photo of a property indicative of the bleak conditions in Attawapiskat, the northern Ontario First Nations community that has dominated the national news.
Stories about poor or dilapidated housing conditions on First Nations reserves are a recurring news feature. First Nations leaders argue for more funds to build more houses, and blame the federal government for the poor condition of existing homes. But who really is responsible for the construction of homes in these communities?
The short answer is that the Chief in Council is responsible. In 1983, as part of devolution of responsibility to First Nations, Chief in Councils became the authority with respect to homes built in their jurisdiction.
It also became the responsibility of Chief in Councils to pass by-laws to control building activities. The responsibility included introducing building permits, and ensuring that building activities such as electrical work were performed by licensed electricians.
However, only some 12 of 650 First Nations communities have passed by-laws stating that residential homes must be built to either the national or provincial building code. For the majority of communities, there are no by-laws or processes to approve building plans or the site where the home is to be built.
In many cases, electrical work is done by unqualified workers. New construction is generally not inspected, and if it is, the approval is based on a band housing policy and not on whether the construction complies with actual building codes.
In 2003, the Auditor General of Canada raised similar concerns, but little has changed. Homes that are not built to code are fire traps. That is why First Nations have the highest rate of injuries and deaths due to fires in North America.
Homes built in communities without enforceable by-laws don’t last long. Poor construction practices lead to what are known as “disposable houses.” A study by a national association revealed that some First Nations communities without by-laws or sound construction practices are forced to rebuild their homes every five years — as compared to 50 years for homes in communities that are built to code.
If a home is estimated to cost, say, $180,000 to build, and you’re making major repairs on a regular basis because of shoddy construction, you can spend what amounts to almost $1-million over a normal 50-year lifespan. And since rents aren’t collected (as some believe housing is a treaty right), Chief in Councils sometimes are forced to take funds from other areas such as education to pay for emergency home repairs.
The inferior construction in First Nations housing also opens the door to possible liability challenges for the Chief in Councils by their band members. Band members who are injured or are sick because they are living in poorly constructed homes with resulting mould issues may be able to sue.
There are some simple solutions to address this problem. The federal government needs to take a more businesslike approach in funding the construction and renovation of homes. Funds should be allocated only to those communities that have appropriate by-laws and a framework to ensure homes are built to code.
And the by-laws need to be enforced: Inspection progress reports should be based on compliance with code. Funds should not be released until final sign off by a certified inspector. The federal government should follow similar lending and loan practices to those used by financial institutions for homes built off reserve.
The bottom line is that bands need to adopt good construction practices. This not only includes passing by-laws to adopt building and fire codes, but also conducting site and mandatory inspections; using contracts that have not been written by the contractors; using contractors that are qualified or certified; allowing the issuance of stop orders and hold-backs for inferior construction; engaging professionals to manage these projects; and taking the politics out of the housing portfolio.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it highlights some of the main issues explaining why housing in First Nations is such a challenge. The good news is that there are some First Nations communities that are providing leadership in construction practices that can be used as models of excellence.
Everyone in a cold country deserves to live in a safe and warm home. There should be no exceptions.