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Canadian Housing Issues

Aboriginal Housing in Canada: History of Adaptation to Environment

Totem poleThe aboriginal houses reveal a history of successful adaptations to particular environment, cultural beliefs and lifestyle practices. At one hand owing to their nomadic lifestyle, some houses were simple, portable, and even temporary. However, then there were some whose architecture was breathtaking. The environment played a major role in the house buildup and community arrangement of aboriginal people. For instance, the Haida people, once living on the Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C utilized the abundant forests in shape of tall trees for house building. On the contrary, the Huron were a sedentary tribe who lived in longhouse made of small trees and even barricaded their villages.

Due to their location, they took advantage of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River for trade and communication in Ontario & Quebec. The Inuit’s were experiencing another extreme in shape of harsh winters in Arctic. They survived it by living in small snow build igloos. Such igloos are still used by them temporary during hunting season.

History of Aboriginal Dwellings in Canada

Haida Towns

Aboriginal housing in CanadaHaida culture emerged between the dark forests and the coastline in the rainy Northwest B.C. These people during their interaction with Europeans lived in several small and large towns. They preserved their culture of artwork and way of life until the late 1700. However, the epidemic of late 1860s and deculturation in 1870-80 brought their monumental sculpture practices to an end.

As a sign of flexibility, the skilled workers started miniature artwork aimed at tourist market. Today, Haida houses and their living arrangements are just left in historical photograph. Modern Haida house styles are more or less like those of their White neighbors. Nevertheless, some salient features of this historical but now defunct Haida culture were:

  1. Haida people consisted of 30 tribes constituting a complex society of nobles, commoners, and even slaves. They never developed agriculture rather Haida people relied on nearby forest products and Northwest Coast bounties like Salmon and Halibuts.
  2. Show of status symbols was common among the wealthy elites as they expressed it in lavish ceremonies like potlatch and monumental artwork. Haida were famous for their architecture and crafty use of cedar wood. The cedar wood made huge houses were built by local skilled artisans and supported by vast array of laborers including slaves from other tribes. Their villages made of one or two rows of cedar wood houses facing the sea.
  3. The concept of extended families was common as related families live together in a house. Also, within a family highest honor was extended by offering living space in the back wall. Totem poles were widespread in a Haida village. A few of them memorials while most were erected as family status to record family tree in front of house. The concept of Totem pole was spiritual not idolatry. Hence each family related their legendary relationship with a spirit in shape of an animal like raven, wolf, bear, eagle etc. In Haida culture universe was considered as a large house, with the sides being the four cardinal directions.

Recently some Aboriginals are going back to their roots by reviving their once diminished ceremonial practices. For instance, Haida people begin raising totem poles in their villages and a few tribes started the once forbidden potlatch practice.

Longhouses and Tepee

Aboriginal housingThe village of Ksan located at the junction of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers in the community of Hazelton, British Columbia illustrates many features of a Gitxsan village from the distant past: the totem poles, decorated houses in single line facing the river, the smoke house, and food cache.

Aboriginal housingLonghouses with wooden frames, 25 ft wide and 150 ft long, were common among the Iroquois. Besides storage pits for corn within village, there were shared cooking fires and sleeping areas lined at the sides for up to 12 families.

Nomadic aboriginal hunters specialized in temporary and simple housing models in shape of Tepee. This cone shaped decorated structure made with buffalo hides was less labour and time consuming as could be erected by two persons within an hour. Though merely 15 meters in diameter, it was cool in summer and warm in winter.

Aboriginal Housing Needs

Decent and affordable living is the desire of 4 million Canadians who are struggling to call a place they live as their own. The desires of Aboriginal people are not different from the rest of Canadians as they also face similar challenges in finding affordable housing. In fact, there is even a rising demand for housing among them as they represent fast growing segment of population with nearly half of them are young (25 and below).

Aboriginal housing

On-Reserve Housing

On-Reserve there is already a shortage of housing units in the range of 20,000-35,000 with the demand rising 2,200 units annually. Overcrowding, sanitation and health issues along with the repair requirements are some of the consequences of this housing shortage. The federal government in order to address this housing demand, responded in 2005 with an investment of $295 million, building 6,400 housing units along with servicing of 5,400 dwellings and renovating a further 1,500 units.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the Indian and Northern Affairs Canada are also engaged in the build up and repair work of Aboriginals houses at on-Reserve. CMHC for instance is actively promoting on-Reserve home ownership through mortgage loan insurance and encouraging access to private financing.

Rising Off-Reserve Living

According to 2006 Census, Canada has about 1.7 million Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people in Canada speak 60 different languages and 54 percent of Canada’s Aboriginal people live in or near big cities. The cities with the largest number of Aboriginal people are: Winnipeg (68,380), Edmonton (52,100), and Vancouver (40,310). The aboriginal population living off-Reserve is constantly on the rise: 70.6% in 2001 compared to 73.7% in 2006 (Canadian census).

Despite population increase majority of Aboriginals live in poor housing condition as they are disproportionately among the homeless in cities across Canada. In fact as revealed by several studies, the demand for housing is significantly higher for off-Reserve aboriginal households than the rest of the Canadian population.

The aboriginals living off-Reserve owing to their low income and high unemployment are increasing find it difficult to find adequate, suitable, and affordable houses. The figures speak for itself. Compared to 24% of non-Reserve Aboriginals only 13.5% of non-aboriginals required core housing need in 2001. As a result of this housing shortage, more and more Aboriginals are facing issues of homelessness in the urban areas. As a survival strategy, a few live temporary with family or friends culminating in complex social issues in Canadian cities.

Aboriginal Housing Trends

Ontario Situation

First nation CanadaThe Aboriginals including First Nations, Métis and Inuit are on the rise in Ontario as their population increased 29% during 2001 and 2006 reaching almost 300,000. Important to note that 89% of them now live off-reserve with 62% living in urban areas mostly concentrated in Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs), urban centers with population of at least 100,000.

The Indian Act recognizes almost 127 of these 133 First Nations communities residing in Ontario. However, they are unique as compared to the rest of Canada more of these people are concentrated in remote and small communities accessible only by ice road in winter or via air.

Iqaluit Situation

Not long ago there was a story in the July 2007 edition of Edmonton Journal, revealing the Aboriginal housing shortage and trend in the Iqaluit, the territorial capital of Nunavut and with the largest concentration of Inuit people (58%). For instance, for city with 35% unemployment rate, the rent ($2,094) for a two-bedroom apartment was one of the highest in Canada. Similarly, for a city with the lowest population of any capital city in Canada (7,200), the condos and houses prices were $300,000 and 500,000 respectively.

Interestingly, homeless people were not as visible as in the rest of the Canadian cities. However, beneath this calmness there were harsh realities of housing shortages and affordability on part of the Aboriginal people. Most of the people as a survival strategy have to rely on their friends and families for their shelter. As a result, 54% of Inuits live in over crowded spaces, where two or three-bedroom apartments were sustaining 8-15 people affecting their health and wellbeing.

Similarly, according to a CAAN 2010 report, 95% of those on the waiting list for housing in Nunavut in 2008 were Inuit. Also, CMHC reports that the vacancy rate in Iqaluit is virtually zero.

Aboriginal Housing and Health

Health is an important issue connected to the housing situation of Aboriginals in Canada. The standard of living on on-Reserve is more severe as half of the houses there do not meet the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) qualitative and quantitative standards. Crowding is an issue of immediate concern as there on average are 20% more persons per room compared to the rest of Canada.

Canadian Third World

Aboriginal HealthPhil Fontaine, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, while demanding better housing conditions for First Nations people in Canada said, 

We rank no better than a Third World country, and that is simply unacceptable. There is no good reason why our people should be as poor as they are.

Aboriginal HealthSome studies suggested that First Nations people were five times more likely than non-Aboriginal people to live in crowded homes. This overcrowding is linked with 34 times more tuberculosis among the on-reserve people than the rest of Canadian population.

Respiratory, diarrheal, and skin infections are also linked to inadequate housing and sanitary conditions. In addition, access to clean drinking water is a rare commodity for 35 communities while there are boil water advisories on over 100 reserves.

Nearly 15% of aboriginal homes in 2006 required major repair works like plumbing, electrical wiring, walls, floors or ceilings. In fact, it will be fair to say that Aboriginals on-reserves live more or less in third world conditions.

Canada's Economic Action Plan: Aboriginal Housing Support

The federal government policies have a direct impact on the development of Aboriginal housing in Canada. Nearly two decades back (1993), the Canadian federal government brought to a halt funding for Urban Native program ignoring the housing demands of off-Reserve Aboriginals.

This policy of negligence of urban housing needs of this growing population segment continues as the Harper's government Canada's Economic Action Plan initiated in 2009 again allocated $400 million for First Nations reserve. This multi-prank initiative besides creating jobs, new small businesses, and skilled workforce also aims at new social housing projects, repair of the existing social housing units and complementary housing activities. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) will oversee these projects.

Concerning the CMHC projects, $250 million will be allocated to repair as well as building up new on-reserve social housing. Similarly, the remaining $150 million will be utilized by the INAC to promote market-based housing on-reserve and address immediate housing needs.

Even though the seriously lacking housing conditions at on-reserves need such stimulus packages, the off-Reserve Aboriginals also require their due share in such government initiatives. More specifically, young family, lone parents, and singles are in urgent need of such housing support.

Nevertheless, there are a few initiatives to tackle this issue like the federal government plans in 2006, the Northern Housing Trust, the National Homelessness Initiative (NHI), the Aboriginal Strategy (UAS), CMHC housing renovation programs, and Quebec Off-Reserve Aboriginal Housing Trust.


There is a need for a comprehensive strategy to address the off-Reserve Aboriginal housing problems. The following target areas suggested by numerous studies can help alleviate the aboriginal housing problems in Canada, namely:

  1. More and more Aboriginal households are now living off-Reserves and majority of them are low income earners or unemployed resulting in dismal house conditions. Although the on-Researve households have serious housing problems and need institutional assistance, the decision makers are ignorning in their developmental policies, this major portion of Aboriginal population living in urban centres. Understanding the housing needs of off-Reserve Aboriginal population and giving it a priority in government development policies. It is estimated that to prevent further growth in off-reserve housing need owing to rapidly increasing Aboriginal population, government assistance be needed annually for at least 1,000 new housing units. 
  2. The existing housing units at on-Reserve as well as off-Reserve need improvement to bring it to average Canadian living standards. - There is a need to arrest the already skewed non-Reserve house ownership trend (54% for aboriginals vs. 68% for non-aboriginals). 
  3. Aboriginal homelessness is also an area of concern and can be easily be reduced by increase social housing support programs.

Useful Resources and References

The following is the list of resources and web links for further research on the housing issues of Aboriginal people in Canada.

  1. Haida house models. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 
  2. Aboriginal housing in Canada, 2010. Discussion paper. Canadian Aboriginal Aids Network. index.asp?initiativeID=8&mode=7 
  3. A time for action: A national plan to address aboriginal housing, 2009. National Aboriginal Housing Association. Linda Larcombe et al. Housing conditions in 2 Canadian First Nations communities. Int J Circumpolar Health 2011; 70(2):141-153.
  4. Living conditions for First Nations 'unacceptable', 2007. CBC News. 
  5. Haida, 1996. Encyclopedia of cultures. 
  6. Aboriginal living conditions 2008 - A Photographic Exhibition, 2009. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. aga/cata-eng.asp 
  7. Aboriginal living conditions, 2006. Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs quick facts. datasheets/living.asp 
  8. Housing and infrastructure. Aboriginal Canada portal, Government of Canada. ao20018.html 
  9. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. 
  10. Aboriginal housing in Canada. Background Discussion paper, 2010. Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. BriefingBook/FactSheetsAndReports/CAAN_Aboriginal%20housing%20in%20Canada.pdf 
  11. Aboriginal housing background paper, 2004. Canada Mortgage and housing corporation. bckpr/INAC_BgPaper_e.pdf 
  12. Aboriginal Housing. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. 
  13. Urban native housing program. Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
  14. Architecture, aboriginal, 2001. Encyclopedia of British Columbia. 
  15. Ksan historical village. 
  16. Aboriginal people in Ontario, 2006. Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs quick facts. datasheets/aboriginal.asp 
  17. Federal control over reserve land keeps aboriginals in poverty, 2010. Winnipeg’s Weekly Urban Journal. 
  18. A "smallish" First Nations long house at Mill Bay.

( 3 Votes ) 

Ontario Debt

Federal Debt

Quebec Debt

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