A boy plays on a broken-down RV on the Cote First Nation, near the town of Kamsack, Saskatchewan. Zachary Prong/Reuters

Changing or abolishing the Indian Act in order to allow private land ownership may seem like a logical solution, but it’s not without its criticisms.

Sylvia Olsen is mad.

In fact, she’s spent at least the past 40 years outraged by the conditions that many of Canada’s 1.6 million Indigenous people live in—especially the 339,000 who live on-reservation.

Olsen, who has worked as an on-reserve housing specialist for decades, was just 17 when she moved to southern British Columbia’s Tsartlip First Nation reserve in 1972. She’s a white woman who married in to the nation, one of the 600 or so First Nations and bands that stretch across the country.  

“You can’t actually believe that this exists in Canada,” she says.

She’s referring to a housing crisis that has plagued First Nations reserves in Canada for decades, and that is worsening with each passing year.

Currently, in southern Manitoba’s Sandy Bay First Nation—a place where winter temperatures often dip below -40 F—people are living in rat-infested homes without heat or reliable electricity. Rampant mold in northern Ontario’s Cat Lake First Nation is seriously damaging people’s health. In Attawapiskat, some people live in uninsulated sheds. Neskantaga First Nation has had a boil-water advisory for 25 years. In Nunavut, tuberculosis infection rates among Inuit are 26 times the national average due to overcrowded housing. Most people can’t afford to do better; 80 percent of reserves have median incomes below Canada’s poverty line.

Not all Indigenous people in Canada live on reserves; many have separate land treaties and settlement agreements, while others have yet to reclaim their land. Still, housing shortages are a common problem across most First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. This article speaks mainly about First Nations reserves.  

No ownership, no assets, no mortgages

In 1876, the Indian Act “reserved” Crown-held land for First Nations and took the rest for itself, thus creating a reservation system that to this day prohibits First Nations people from owning land. On-reserve housing policies in the decades that followed further entrenched a welfare system that ultimately keeps people poor.

“They have controlled the delivery and opportunities for housing to a whole racially-based group of people for 90 years,” says Olsen. “It’s always been the government’s underlying philosophy that First Nations people don’t know how to house themselves—‘they need our help.’”

But the federal government doesn’t really know how to help because housing—like healthcare and education—is a provincial dossier for non-Indigenous Canadians. After years of failed federal projects, First Nations people are clamoring for greater autonomy and more concrete solutions. Many believe that starts with individual land rights.

Because First Nations can’t own land, they have no assets against which to secure mortgages. That means people who want to build on-reserve homes need to front 100 percent of their building costs—costs that can surpass normal market value due to the remoteness of many reserves.

Some external programs help, but have limited scope. For instance, Habitat for Humanity Canada’s Indigenous Housing Partnership has helped 221 families over the past 11 years secure no-down-payment, interest-free mortgages.

The program has led to more financial stability and better outcomes in health, education, and employment, said Peter De Barros, the organization’s vice-president of government and Indigenous affairs, in an email. But even Habitat for Humanity has struggled to break the legal and cultural chains of the Indian Act.

The James Bay Cree Nation in northern Quebec are also looking at creative approaches to ownership as a way of overcoming their housing barriers.

The James Bay Cree are regarded as one of the most affluent First Nations in Canada due to a multi-million-dollar landmark compensation agreement with Quebec and its hydroelectric utility. Money has bought some opportunity, and as a consequence about 95 percent of Quebec Cree still live on the territory—a community-building success that has also led to overcrowding.

Bill Namagoose, executive director for the Cree Nation Government and Grand Council of the Crees, attributes his nation’s housing difficulties in part to 75-year limits on land leases. Every time a lease is up for renewal, residents have to plead their case to the chief and council. “If they don’t like you they have the power to dispossess you of your house,” he explains. The limits strip people of their ability to build equity, and the uncertainty discourages building.

That’s why the Crees are looking to new models of private home ownership. “We are trying to change the structure. Instead of having land ownership we would have access to a lot, and the right to access that lot would become the marketable commodity, and you would have perpetual rights to that lot,” says Namagoose.

He says a measure like this is imperative to keeping the community together. “We will face an exodus if we don’t improve our condition,” he says.

A land ownership experiment

Nisga’a First Nation, in northern British Columbia, is a non-reserve community and the first nation in Canada to give land rights to citizens by way of fee-simple (absolute) home ownership.

Since Nisga’a Landholding Transaction Act took effect in 2012, 62 residential parcels have been transferred to fee-simple owners. The land was transferred free of charge to Nisga’a citizens who held land interests (“entitlements”), according to Diane Cragg, Nisga’a Nation’s registrar of land titles. Those entitlement holders can also access a Nisga’a Nation mortgage guarantee program.

After the initial transfer, the land owner can give or sell their land to anyone, whether they’re Nisga’a or not.

“This means that the land can be mortgaged without the need for a guarantee by the Nisga’a Nation. It also means that Nisga’a citizens with non-Nisga’a family members can undertake estate planning in a reasonable way. Or, if the original Nisga’a owner of the fee simple title wishes to sell the land, that is possible without restriction,” Cragg explained in an email.

Since the program started, no one has sold their land to a non-Nisga’a person and no one has defaulted on their mortgage, she added.

Changing, or abolishing, the Indian Act in order to allow land ownership may seem like a logical solution for much of the First Nations housing crisis—but it’s not without its criticisms, either.

Many Indigenous people believe that private ownership brings with it a looming threat of foreclosure, which could ultimately chip away at Indigenous territories and rights. It could also disrupt the communal spirit of many communities.

Turning housing over to the provinces, which have jurisdiction over housing for non-Indigenous Canadians, is also a touchy subject. Namagoose says many Indigenous leaders believe that dealing with any foreign entity outside the confines of the Indian Act will erode their people’s sovereignty. He think that’s ridiculous; Crees have had education and healthcare managed by the Quebec government since 1975.

“Crees have proven that we will deal with the federal government, the Quebec government, any municipality, or any corporation. It doesn’t reduce our status as Crees,” he says.

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