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Indigenous children play in water-filled ditches in Attawapiskat, Ont., on April 19, 2016.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Darrell Brown is a Cree business owner and chair of Indigenous Clean Energy’s board of directors. Ian Scholten is the director of Indigenous Clean Energy’s ICE Network and Bringing It Home initiative.

Home is the heart of First Nations, Métis and Inuit families. Like a heart, a home needs to keep people healthy, give them energy and enable them to live fully.

Sadly, this is not the reality for many Indigenous communities across Canada. Rather than keep people healthy, many homes are drafty and mouldy, leaving occupants with respiratory and other physical- and mental-health issues. Many homes also waste energy – draining Indigenous people’s livelihoods and abusing the Earth’s resources.

How can Indigenous people live fully with broken homes?

We need to take ambitious action to dramatically improve energy efficiency in Indigenous communities and address the housing challenges faced by families.

Investments in energy efficiency not only provide healthier homes, but also create jobs and reduce energy costs, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this month, Indigenous Clean Energy (ICE), our non-profit which advances Indigenous inclusion in Canada’s energy futures economy through Indigenous leadership and broad-based collaboration, released a report that lays out the health, environmental and economic benefits that would result from a national effort to retrofit and build new homes in Indigenous communities.

The report estimates that nearly 170,000 Indigenous homes need energy efficiency work. Beyond that, at least 70,000 new homes will be needed in Indigenous communities over the next 10 years. Each one could be built to high-efficiency standards such as net-zero energy-ready.

Together, these create a need for close to $5.4-billion in investments. Of this, $3.6 billion is required for retrofit work on homes that exist today.

Once completed, this investment would yield $185-million in annual household savings – and more than 950,000 tonnes of carbon emissions avoided each year. That second number is important – not only does it help Canada reach its climate goals, but it means more savings as the price of carbon increases.

Even more significant is that it would make homes last longer. This could result in $11-billion in savings through asset enhancement. Along the way, such an approach would create more than 73,000 full-time jobs and drive other environmental and health benefits for communities.

And these are conservative numbers that don’t begin to factor in urban Indigenous homes. The actual impact could be far greater. The challenge now is: How do we get there?

The federal government’s latest budget put forward a $4.4-billion program offering interest-free home-retrofit loans for all Canadians. That’s a start – but not enough if we have any hope of reaching net-zero by 2050, let alone the commitments made at the recent global climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.

We need different approaches and sources of infrastructure investment to unlock this potential. Here are three to explore.

First, channelling carbon tax revenues back into Indigenous communities for energy efficiency is an opportunity to make homes more resilient for those living on the front lines of climate change.

Second, investing health care funding into energy efficiency as a preventive health measure. New Zealand has seen a 4-to-1 return on this type of intervention. A U.K. program showed a 36-per-cent increase in health outcomes thanks to energy efficiency. The potential here cannot be overstated.

Third, and likely most important, is unlocking private capital investments. We need to package efficiency projects as larger-scale infrastructure investment opportunities. Such an approach will need work at the community level to ensure the capacity and procedures are in place to do the work and repay the investment. It will need work with investors to make financing options available. It will need work across all levels of governments to leverage their funding and let the investments flow.

This opportunity is not out of reach. Indigenous communities already have a strong track record of successful renewable energy projects – efficiency is the next key step.

To help get us there, ICE, through its Bringing It Home initiative, will co-convene a national collaborative process to figure out how this can work. The process will involve federal government bodies, investment groups, Indigenous organizations, the philanthropic sector and more. In partnership with Indigenous communities, these new financing mechanisms will be put into practice on community-scale energy-efficiency projects.

Now is the time for a major national Indigenous energy-efficiency initiative. Now is the time to ensure “healthy energy living” – ICE’s term for its community-centred approach – for Indigenous communities across Canada.

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