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A report released on March 19 by Canada’s Auditor-General found there is a shortage of 55,320 houses on First Nations reserves, but since 2018 the federal government has only provided money to build 11,754 of them.The Globe and Mail

Ask any Canadian politician about the housing crisis these days and, no matter their political stripe, they will recite party lines about what is being done, or ought to be done, to ensure that everyone has access to affordable and safe housing that is appropriate to their needs.

Then, just for fun, say, no, you meant the housing crisis on First Nations reserves – the one where Indigenous people are four times more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in overcrowded housing, and six times more likely to live in homes that don’t meet basic standards.

That other crisis, in which there is a shortage of 55,320 houses but since 2018 the federal government has only provided money to build 11,754; where there are 80,650 existing units in need of repairs – including the removal of toxic black mould in some cases – but Ottawa has only provided the cash to fix 15,859 of them.

The crisis where Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation are supposed to meet First Nations housing needs by 2030, but are only 20 per cent of the way to that goal.

The housing crisis in which there has been no meaningful improvement since fiscal 2015-16, given that the percentage of houses in need of major repair has only dropped to 19.7 per cent from 20.8 per cent over that period, and the proportion of housing that needs to be replaced rose to 6.5 per cent from 5.6 per cent.

All this dire information came in a despairing report released Tuesday by Canada’s Auditor-General, Karen Hogan – the fourth report on the sorry state of reserve housing her office has published since 2003. “I can honestly say that I am completely discouraged that so little has changed and that so many First Nations individuals and families continue to live in substandard homes,” Ms. Hogan said in a press release.

This is not to diminish the seriousness of the housing crisis that makes the headlines almost every day. It, too, needs prolonged political attention, and plenty of money, to fix. Housing is a basic human right and must be addressed.

But that only further emphasizes Ottawa’s failings with regard to housing on First Nations reserves. It has sole responsibility for the file; there is no other level of tax-collecting government involved. It’s just the federal government working with First Nations, and it isn’t spending enough money.

It apparently isn’t even spending the limited available funds in the best places. The Auditor-General found that, “First Nations communities with the poorest housing conditions received less funding than communities of the same size with better housing conditions” – an indication that those running the program are more concerned with quick fixes that look like progress while making longer-term work a lesser priority.

The AG report also said Indigenous Services Canada and the CHMC have yet to produce a road map for getting to the 2030 goal; that they don’t have assurances that the homes that are being built meet building code standards; and they still haven’t identified the magnitude of the mould problem.

As well, Indigenous Services Canada has a legislated mandate to transfer responsibility for housing to First Nations but doesn’t have a policy framework in place for doing that.

In Canada, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples means a number of things but, at its heart, it is about fixing the glaring economic and social inequities in the lives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

While all Indigenous people lag behind the non-Indigenous population on the most basic metrics, First Nations people living on reserve are the worst off.

A 2023 Indigenous Services Canada report found they earn far less than other Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people, are more likely to be unemployed, more likely not to have a high-school or university degree, and are multiple times more likely to be in foster care as children, or in prison as adults, than the non-Indigenous population.

Ottawa’s lackadaisical approach to providing them with sanitary and safe housing on reserve is just one more way Canada is failing them.

As politicians throw their shoulder into the housing crisis facing the broader population – promising billions of dollars in support and clearing obstacles in the path of new construction – they should put the same energy and urgency into the country’s other housing crisis.

The one that no one is talking about.

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