This week, ReconciliAction YEG hopes to clarify some myths regarding the special rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Today’s post concerns the common myth that First Nations people living on reserve get free housing. This post addresses what rights to housing First Nations people living on reserves have, what the government is currently contributing to on-reserve housing, and what the condition of on-reserve housing is.
What right to housing do First Nations people living on reserve have?
There is disagreement between First Nations and the federal government regarding the extent to which First Nations people living on reserve have a right to housing. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has the following to say about Indigenous peoples’ right to housing:
First Nations maintain Treaty, indigenous and human rights to safe, secure homes. These rights are intrinsic, inherent as well as set out specifically in Treaty and agreements guaranteeing First Nation economies and way of life. These rights are also informed by and substantiated through various International declarations such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and direction from Chiefs-in-Assembly resolutions.
However, the Office of the Auditor General has found that the federal government has a different perspective on First Nations right to on-reserve housing:
Many First Nations individuals, chiefs and councils, and organizations believe that First Nations people living on reserves have a treaty right to free housing. They believe that the federal government is responsible for providing First Nations with enough funds to meet its treaty obligations. The government does not agree that on-reserve housing is a treaty right, and it provides assistance pursuant to government policy.
Because the federal government does not recognize a treaty right to free housing and only provides assistance “pursuant to government policy,” the extent to which the federal government financially supports on-reserve housing depends on the governing party’s policies and, by extension, the views of voters.
First Nations’ right to housing has the potential to evolve if federal and provincial governments implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which expressly states that Indigenous people have rights “to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, including … housing…” Hypothetically, if UNDRIP were implemented by federal and provincial governments and afterwards ratified by Canada, then First Nations on-reserve could have additional rights to housing enforceable under international law. Bill C-262, which was passed by the House of Commons on May 30, 2018, was a significant step towards UNDRIP being implemented into Canadian law.
What is the government currently contributing to on-reserve housing for First Nations?
The federal government has implemented a patchwork system of programs to improve housing conditions on First Nations reserves.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) contributes about $143 million per year to improve First Nations on-reserve housing as part of the Capital Facilities and Maintenance Program. This program applies to all provinces and territories except British Columbia. The program does not cover the full cost of housing and maintenance. First Nations are expected to cover the full cost of housing using other sources too, such as private loans.
In addition to the funding provided through ISC, the federal government also invests in two on-reserve housing programs operated by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The CMHC operates both the On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program and the First Nation Market Housing Fund. These two programs provide loans and funding for on-reserve housing developments.
What is the current state of housing on reserves?
The actual condition of housing on reserves varies depending on the reserve. Many First Nations communities report long waiting lists for government housing funding or loans, overcrowding, harmful levels of mold and other toxic substances, and other problems tangentially related to substandard housing, such as boil-water advisories.
In conclusion, it is untrue that all First Nations people living on-reserve get free housing. The reality is far more restrictive, and far less reliable. Even when housing is provided, it is too often inadequate and unsafe.
Until next time,
Team ReconciliAction YEG
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 Assembly of First Nations, “National First Nations Housing Strategy,” PDF (https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/housing/afn_national_housing_strategy.pdf)
 Canada, Office of the Auditor General, 2003 April Report of the Auditor General of Canada, (https://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/docs/20030406ce.pdf) at 6.34
 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 295, UNGAOR, 61st Sess, Supp No 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/295, 46 ILM 1013 (2007), art 21
 Canada, Bill C-262, An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declarationon the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 1st Sess, 42nd Parl, 2018, (as passed by the House of Commons 30 May 2018)
 Government of Canada, “First Nation On-Reserve Housing Program” (March 27, 2018), online: https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1100100010752/1535115367287
 United Nations Housing Rights Programme, Indigenous peoples’ right to adequate housing: a global overview, Report No. 7, Nairobi, Kenya (2005), online: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/IndigenousPeoplesHousingen.pdf, at 84
 Roberta Bell, “More complaints about housing on northern Alberta reserve”, CBC News (13 March 2018), online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/more-cold-lake-first-nations-housing-concerns-1.4553843
 WATERTODAY, “Advisories for Alberta”, 2018, online: https://www.watertoday.ca/textm-p.asp?province=1
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