Canada is continually ranked one of the top countries in the world for its standard of living, but for many Indigenous people, and particularly those living on reserves or in the Inuit homeland, Canada is a very different place. For example, the latest data from Canada’s National Household Survey (NHS) revealed that First Nations people are four times more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in dwellings requiring major repairs, which includes things like defective plumbing or wiring and structural damage to the walls, floors or ceilings. On reserves alone, First Nations are six times more likely to be living in these conditions.

The lifespans of these houses are further reduced by overcrowding, which is another serious issue among Indigenous communities, and especially on reserves. In dire situations, as many as 16 people have been found living in a small house with just a few bedrooms. There have even been instances of people moving back into condemned buildings, because they have nowhere else to go.

Poor housing conditions like these can often lead to poor physical and mental health among residents. For instance, due to the stressed and overcrowded housing commonly found on reserves, there’s also a very high incidence of mold contamination in these communities, and mold contamination can cause a number of health issues, including asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Despite the efforts of Indigenous leaders and government programs to fix these issues, poor and substandard housing conditions is a persistent problem among Indigenous people that only continues to grow — The Assembly of First Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2031 there will be a backlog of 130,000 units.

As living conditions for many of Canada’s Indigenous people worsen, understanding what brought us here — and the barriers Indigenous people face in meeting their housing needs — is a critical part of adequately addressing the issue.

The barriers to building in Indigenous communities

One of the many challenges to building in Indigenous communities, particularly on First Nation reserves, is rooted in the Indian Act. When the Act was introduced in 1876, the Government of Canada seized control over First Nations’ traditional territories, dividing individuals into bands and placing them on reserves without compensation or consent.

Today, nearly half of the more than 637,000 Canadians who identify as First Nations are living on reserves and governed by the Indian Act. Although the Act has been amended on a number of occasions, it still influences various aspects of First Nations’ lives, including their relationship with the government, taxation, use of natural resources, and land use and ownership.

The housing available on reserves is a mix of rental units, privately-owned homes, and band-owned homes, though it’s largely made up of the latter. Due to regulations set out by the Indian Act, land tenure in these communities differs from the rest of the country in a couple of significant ways. For some First Nations, the Act not only restricts the transfer of reserve lands to any entity besides band members, but also between a First Nation and its members, limiting the market for on-reserve housing. In other Indigenous communities, access to land to build housing is only possible through short or long-term leases. That means people living on reserve or in other Indigenous communities cannot use land as collateral when applying for a mortgage, and as a result, many financial institutions are reluctant to grant traditional mortgages for these properties.

The financial challenges of building adequate housing are exacerbated in isolated communities. Some of the most remote and northern Indigenous communities are only accessible by air, water or winter roads, which makes transporting building supplies time-consuming, unreliable, and extremely expensive — especially for places that are already plagued by poverty because they’re cut-off from the rest of the country, both geographically and economically.

Due to the lack of infrastructure in these areas, there’s not only limited training opportunities for members of the community to learn the skilled trades needed to build and maintain adequate housing, but it’s also difficult to attract or retain professionals like building inspectors and tradespeople.

How Habitat for Humanity Canada is working with Indigenous communities to help

Given the sheer size and scope of this issue, it’s clear that no one solution can solve it — but Habitat’s model of affordable homeownership can play an important role. When Indigenous families purchase their Habitat home through mortgage payments they can afford, there are real and quantifiable benefits to their family, future generations, and the community. According to a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study, on average, one Habitat home generates $175,000 worth of societal benefits through reduced reliance on social housing and food banks, better educational and employment opportunities, and improved health outcomes.

At Habitat for Humanity Canada, we have long understood the essential role adequate housing plays in the well-being of a community, which is why we launched an Indigenous Housing Program in 2007. Since then, we’ve worked closely with Indigenous communities across the country to help improve the living conditions of more than 160 Indigenous families, both on and off reserve. While the overall backlog of housing is overwhelmingly large, every successful project moves us in the right direction. In 2017, we’re planning to partner with at least 35 more Indigenous families to help them become homeowners.

The success of our Indigenous Housing Program is rooted in our approach. We work in partnership with Indigenous communities, allowing us to find culturally appropriate solutions to improve their housing conditions.

“It’s great to have partners like Habitat for Humanity,” said Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Kevin Hart, while discussing the ballooning housing crisis on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

In addition to helping improve living conditions, Habitat’s affordable homeownership model supports capacity development and empowerment. Improving community members’ construction skills through hands-on building experience is an essential part of ensuring the housing solutions we introduce in these communities are sustainable. Our partnerships with Indigenous communities have also helped them strengthen their housing management abilities, and build their internal capacity to introduce affordable homeownership as a long-term solution.

To learn more about our Indigenous Housing Program and its results in 2016, see the Indigenous Housing 2016 Impact Report.


As part of Habitat’s Jimmy Carter & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, Habitat for Humanity Canada is building more than 150 homes alongside 150 families in communities across the country, which includes more than 30 Indigenous families on and off reserve.