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Just days after tabling a private members bill that would make decent affordable housing a right for all Canadians, NDP MPs continued to pressure the federal government to address the national housing crisis. They spoke in particular about the horrific state of affairs in Indigenous communities.

People and families in Indigenous communities across Canada continue to live in inadequate, overcrowded housing — often in freezing conditions — that threaten their health, especially during a pandemic, said the NDP critic for Indigenous Services Lori Idlout and deputy critic, Niki Ashton on Thursday.

The Liberal government has still not come up with the Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy it promised four years ago, said Ashton, MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, adding homelessness and sub-par housing are the top issues in her riding, which covers most of northern Manitoba.

Indigenous Services Canada estimates an immediate on-reserve need for 21,000 homes while another 50,000 need major upgrades, Ashton said.

“What I've heard loud and clear from leaders, from elders, from advocates, and from young people is that the situation is getting worse,” she said.

“We also felt it was important to speak out because this government’s throne speech made no mention of Indigenous housing, which is frankly unacceptable.”

Idlout agreed, adding that in Nunavut, mouldy houses with leaking pipes, already a health risk, were worse during the pandemic.

“These conditions mean that illnesses like COVID-19, tuberculosis and other infections can spread more easily,” she said, adding a constituent recently told her about seven people living in a one-bedroom apartment in Rankin Inlet.

Ashton spoke about a young family with four children from Garden Hill First Nation who had to live in an abandoned school bus in -30 C weather.

“I think we can all agree that in a country as wealthy as Canada, it is shocking, it is immoral,” says NDP MP Niki Ashton on the housing crisis in Indigenous communities that forced a family with four children to live in an abandoned school bus.

In an effort to get the family into better housing, the chief’s elderly brother moved into the bus so they could live in his trailer, which was only in slightly better condition, she said

“I think we can all agree that in a country as wealthy as Canada, it is shocking, it is immoral,” Ashton said.

“And it is frankly a clear alarm for change.”

NDP MP Niki Ashton said an Indigenous family with four children in her riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba had to live in a bus in freezing conditions. Photo courtesy NDP.

West Coast MP pushing for law on the right to housing

On Tuesday, NDP party whip Rachel Blaney also tabled a private member’s bill — for a second time — to amend the Canadian Bill of Rights to include the right to appropriate and affordable housing for all Canadians.

An Indigenous housing strategy developed by and for Indigenous people is long overdue, Blaney told Canada’s National Observer on Thursday.

But additonally, the cost of housing and increasingly scarce rentals is soaring in communities across Canada, Blaney said.

If passed, her reintroduced bill would ensure the right to housing is firmly recognized as law, she said.

“The Liberals continue to talk about a right to housing, but, of course, there is no framework that holds them at any level to account, so I’ve put this (bill) forward again.”

Since the same bill was defeated in 2016, housing affordability, particularly on the West Coast, has gotten worse, including in her own riding of North Island-Powell River, a region with many small towns, and rural and remote communities.

Home prices in her riding’s towns have doubled, and rents are rising while vacancy rates plummet, she said.

In her hometown of Campbell River, the vacancy rate is less than one per cent, which, in turn, drives up the homeless population.

While reintroducing her bill, Blaney said sleeping bags used to remind her of family camping trips.

“Now when I see sleeping bags, I remember that there are so many people out on the streets across this country carrying their bedding with them because they have no safe home to go back to,” she said.

In 2017, the federal government launched its National Housing Strategy, a 10-year plan with a $72-billion investment.

Ottawa followed that up by launching its Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) in 2020 to build homes quickly for the most vulnerable populations, particularly in response to COVID-19.

An additional $1.5 billion was allocated to the initiative in the 2021 budget.

The federal government is taking a new approach to housing anchored in reconciliation and improved outcomes for Indigenous peoples, stated Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office in an email on Friday.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is leading the development of an Indigenous housing strategy with other federal departments and agencies led by Indigenous peoples, for Indigenous peoples, the ministry said.

However, the minister’s office did not say when the outstanding strategy will be finalized.

The federal government is prioritizing Indigenous projects through the $13.2 billion National Housing Co-Investment Fund that provides low-cost and forgivable loans for the construction and repair of affordable housing, the email said. And, nearly 40 per cent of the RHI projects to date involve Indigenous peoples.

We have made significant progress, but we know there is more work to do,” the minister’s office said.

The Liberal’s recent throne speech committed to a new $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund to speed up housing projects, increased flexibility for the first-time buyers program and new rent-to-own program.

Blaney said despite the historic investments, the federal response is inadequate to meet the urgency and scale of the problem.

“We don’t need to do anything except go walk around our communities to see there’s just not enough supply,” she said.

The cost of housing in the towns in her riding also increased during the pandemic as people working from home migrated from cities, Blaney added.

“[It’s] driving the cost of our housing up to such a degree that local people can no longer really afford to purchase in our area,” she said.

Michèle Biss, project manager at the National Right to Housing Network, said the NDP push to tackle housing issues reflects a feeling of urgency felt by many sectors of society.

There are some mechanisms outlined in Ottawa’s Housing Strategy Act in 2019 that allow people facing systemic violations to their right to housing to take them to a federal housing advocate.

However, no such federal housing advocate has been appointed, Biss said.

“It’s a big implementation gap,” she said.

“We have this alternative way to exercise this right, but we still don't have a federal housing advocate.”

“It’s a huge barrier for people experiencing homelessness … We’re anxiously waiting.”

Idlout and Ashton also penned letters of concern to Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Minister Hussen.

The RHI needs additional funding that is better distributed across the country and makes it easier for smaller housing providers and communities to apply for money, they wrote.

And with increasing impacts of climate change in the North, there needs to be investment and construction of all-weather roads to ship critical materials and building supplies as winter ice-roads disappear.

“There are resounding calls for action and the ultimate message is that we need the federal government to step up,” Ashton said.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
December 10, 2021, 04:07 am

This article was updated Friday to include comments from the office of federal Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen.

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One thing to watch out for in government programs like the ones the Liberals have launched on housing is, are they really spending the money? There have been quite a few files over the last few years where the Liberals made splashy announcements, and actually allocated in budgets, billions and billions of dollars to some issue of concern . . . but then set up the programs in such a way that they don't have anybody much actually doing stuff, so most of the money never gets spent.

Their big infrastructure push was like that--they set it up as an "infrastructure development bank" or some such, intended to go with Public-Private Partnerships. Now, PPPs are a fundamentally bad idea. But also, what it meant was they couldn't do anything unless they could find some private firm who could be convinced to go in on whatever project, and most infrastructure just isn't the kind of thing a business can plausibly make money owning. Net result, nothing much got funded--which at least meant we weren't burdened with a ton of PPPs.

If you want to tackle housing for reals, you set up a government agency, have it hire a bunch of workers and buy a bunch of equipment and generally make a big, publicly owned construction company, then give that the stacks of money and have them go BUILD HOUSING. All this guff with facilitating loans or whatever the heck won't do anything, and very likely isn't intended to do anything. It's intended to give them a big flashy announcement that isn't technically a lie but won't end up impacting the budget much. Then at the end of the year they can say "Oh looky, we got a surplus, look what good money managers we are!"