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Through risk management, Coast Salish Insurance, a small B.C. company, helps native people improve housing conditions on their reserves. (HANDOUT)
Through risk management, Coast Salish Insurance, a small B.C. company, helps native people improve housing conditions on their reserves. (HANDOUT)

SUSTAINABILITY

Aboriginal Insurance aims to fix native housing problem Add to ...

As the Idle No More movement has drawn attention to the poor state of native housing in Canada, another aboriginal group has quietly begun to do something about those appalling conditions.

Away from the media spotlight, Aboriginal Insurance Services Inc., which has majority native ownership, held its first annual general meeting in Toronto in January. The corporation, which was founded a year ago, aims “to address the unique cultural, commercial and lifestyle needs of aboriginal communities across Canada,” as explained on its website.

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Insurance is all about evaluating risk and putting a price on it. However, as Chris Pegg, president of B.C.-based Coast Salish Insurance, noted: “Insurance, as we say in Indian country, is just not working.”

The reasons for that are complicated. One major challenge is that reserve lands in Canada are community owned, by the Queen technically, and under the administration of the band council. As a result, insurers have typically arranged with a band’s housing department to cover all of a reserve’s homes en masse, said Mr. Pegg, whose company is part of the Aboriginal Insurance Services broker network.

Since those premiums don’t take into account the condition of individual homes, there’s no incentive to fix things such as broken downspouts.

“Not a lot of insurance companies are wanting to get involved with first nations housing because a lot of the time it’s substandard, which is a huge issue right now,” Mr. Pegg said.

Because a first nations home is often far from a fire hydrant or a fire station, it also usually lacks a Fire Underwriter Survey rating, a trademarked insurance industry standard that underwriters use to rate a building’s insurability.

“So we have developed our own unique rating, which the insurance companies that we work with accept,” said Aboriginal Insurance’s chief executive officer, Randy Sherwin, whose office is in Ancaster, Ont. As part of its mandate, Aboriginal Insurance is also buying firefighting equipment and training firefighters on reserves, he added.

Mr. Sherwin credits Phil Fontaine, the former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, with helping to create Aboriginal Insurance, which in turn was patterned after Amerind Risk Management Corp. in the United States. Amerind has been bringing coverage to aboriginal communities south of the border for more than a quarter century.

“Why reinvent fire if we don’t have to?” Mr. Sherwin said.

The vision was to create a network of brokers in order to increase their buying power. But those brokers also have a common interest in fostering sustainable and healthy homes in first nations communities.

To that end, a major goal is risk management. That means “going into the communities and working with them, and showing them how to control mould issues, and fire prevention, fire ratings, the whole bit,” said Mr. Sherwin, who is not aboriginal himself but has been involved with native insurance programs and causes for 15 years.

“We’re basically using insurance as a tool to create healthy communities and healthy housing,” Mr. Pegg said.

Mr. Pegg also provides health and benefits coverage. He realized the importance of that 20 years ago when he met a young aboriginal man writhing in pain from an abscessed tooth. His Status Indian benefits covered basic dental only.

It turns out that business opportunity would slowly transform his company. He had found a niche market.

“Not too many organizations get into that kind of niche of dealing with first nations,” Mr. Pegg said. “Honestly, I think there’s a bit of a stigma. It’s almost like, so as a last resort you’re dealing with first nations.”

Today aboriginal clients account for about 70 per cent of Mr. Pegg’s business. In recognition of that, he renamed his company three years ago from Chris Pegg & Associates to Coast Salish Insurance and Risk Management Solutions Inc.

“I think he’s made people understand when it comes to our first nations that you can’t treat them the way government has been treating us for years,” said Terry Sampson, a former chief of the Stz’uminus First Nation on Vancouver Island.

Mr. Sampson has been so pleased with the work Mr. Pegg has done on behalf of the Stz’uminus that he now works with him as a liaison to spread that message among other aboriginal leaders. “Since they know me, have trust in me, I thought they’d have trust in Coast Salish Insurance,” Mr. Sampson said.

To help build trust further, Mr. Pegg has encouraged native people to get into the insurance profession as well. One of his current trainees is Richard Hunt, who is originally from Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

“We need more first nations and aboriginal people going into the field,” said Mr. Hunt, who is of Inuit extraction.

Among his duties is to photograph houses on local reserves – front and back and inside and out – and send those photos to insurance underwriter Virginia Magcalas of Optimum West Insurance in Vancouver. “It’s a requirement for us that the premises are updated and housekeeping is in good condition,” Ms. Magcalas said.

Optimum West has underwritten more than 100 on-reserve homes in the two years since the program was implemented, she said.

Much of the problem with first nations housing is that provincial building codes don’t apply, Mr. Pegg said. There is no national building code for reserves, either, although Mr. Pegg said he expects discussions about such a code to begin soon.

In the meantime his company, which has a satellite office in Duncan, B.C., is using insurance as a tool to improve housing conditions on reserves – and in the process create more business for his company. For example, he has formed a risk-management group that reports deficiencies such as faulty electrical panels or leaky roofs to native housing departments.

Despite these efforts, insurance premiums are often considerably higher for on-reserve homes. In Duncan, for example, the cost to insure a home on a reserve can be $300 more per year than for a similar non-reserve house on the other side the street, he said.

Such anomalies aren’t unique to native reserves, said Jackie Proulx, personal lines manager for Optimum West. The premiums are based on actuarial statistics. “It’s just because of the postal code and the loss history,” she said.

One thing she found unusual about insuring native homes was how many 20-year-old houses were being insured for the first time. That’s because a band usually insures a home under its group coverage while it is still under mortgage. Once the mortgage has been paid off, the responsibility for insuring the home falls on the occupant.

And that’s where the risk-management program is so important, Mr. Pegg said. “We make a point of going to all the people who we work with and saying if you want to, we will help you get insurance,” he said.

Coast Salish is also working with Vancouver Island University to establish an aboriginal building inspector certificate program, Mr. Pegg said. The university has a posting on its website about the program, although the start date has yet to be announced.

“It’s not often a white guy’s on a reservation bringing good news,” Mr. Pegg said in explaining the importance of involving aboriginal people in the insurance business.

“That’s the beauty of having a majority-owned company that’s owned by aboriginals,” Mr. Sherwin said. “We’re pouring the money back into developing in these areas.”

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