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After studying dance for her undergraduate degree, Tracee Smith obtained her MBA and developed an interest in the economics of Indigenous communities. In January, 2022, she launched Keewaywin Capital Inc.NICK IWANYSHYN/The Globe and Mail

Indigenous-owned private credit fund Keewaywin Capital Inc. has partnered with Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. to build homes for Indigenous communities.

Over the next five to seven years, Keewaywin and CMHC aim to fund the construction of 300 to 600 homes in Indigenous communities across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Communities that successfully apply for CMHC’s On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program, known as Section 95, will be eligible to take part in the pilot project. To be approved for Section 95, applicants must be able to prove financial stability and the capacity to operate their proposed housing.

Debbie Stewart, vice-president of innovation and partnerships at CMHC, said the program with Keewaywin is important because it can help close some of the gaps in the support her organization has been able to offer communities so far.

“Keewaywin seemed like a really great opportunity in the sense that it was a private Indigenous business with a really strong desire to support Indigenous communities, in particular, those who had a high need,” Ms. Stewart said. “We really just don’t see a lot of different solutions or opportunities available to those communities.”

The pilot project was created by Tracee Smith, president and chief executive officer of Keewaywin and a member of the Missanabie Cree First Nation in Northern Ontario. She said lack of housing is an unfortunate yet continuing problem in Indigenous communities.

“It’s almost a part of life. Everyone in these communities knows that housing is an issue,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s normal to walk into somebody’s house and there’s three families living in the house.”

After studying dance for her undergraduate degree, Ms. Smith obtained her MBA and developed an interest in the economics of Indigenous communities. In January, 2022, she launched Keewaywin, and this partnership with CMHC is the first time, she said, that it feels like the company is launching forward.

In 2019, the National Housing Strategy Act declared that housing is a fundamental human right inherent to the dignity and well-being of an individual. Yet, according to the 2021 census by Statistics Canada, about one in six Indigenous people lived in housing unsuitable for the number of people under their roof. Approximately one in six Indigenous people also lived in a dwelling in need of major repairs in 2021, the census states.

In March, Chief Jordna Hill of Shamattawa First Nation in Manitoba declared a state of emergency, in part, because of a backlog of housing. In the same month, the Keewatin Tribal Council declared a state of emergency for its 11 First Nations owing to deficiencies in infrastructure, public safety and health services. In a press release after Mr. Hill’s announcement, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said the Canadian government have been making promises to invest in First Nations infrastructure since 2017 but there still are no improvements.

To encourage solutions, Ms. Smith hopes this partnership can set a precedent for others to consider more non-conventional solutions to Canada’s Indigenous housing crisis beyond government funds. She plans to raise $100-million for the initial pilot project, through investors and connections she’s made in Canada’s corporate world. CMHC will contribute an additional $50-million a year into the long-term financing of the homes.

In order to access the money Keewaywin and CMHC are offering, communities will have to have their construction and financing plans approved by both organizations. Then, under the supervision of a project monitor, the community will be able to build the dwellings it had approved.

Ms. Smith also has her sights set on fundraising $1-billion for a second fund, which could facilitate the construction of 3,000 homes. She said she’s also excited for Indigenous communities to start reaching out to Keewaywin on a one-on-one basis because then she’ll be able to assess loans using less bureaucratic or colonial criteria.

She hopes to prove this pilot project is a small-scale version of what’s possible.

“I think it’s been so ingrained in both governments and the Indigenous population that the only way to solve the housing issue is trying to find more money in government budgets. Every year at budget time, Indigenous leadership or politicians say the same thing: ‘It’s not enough,’” Ms. Smith said.

“You can’t just keep going back to that same door and expecting a different answer.”

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