Skip to main content

Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu speaks during a news conference on COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, in Ottawa, on March 3.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu says she has put forward an “ambitious” funding request for Indigenous housing to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland ahead of the budget.

Ms. Hajdu told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday that housing is approaching a “state of crisis,” noting there are long waiting lists in many communities and huge strains on families. She did not specify what her budget request to Ms. Freeland includes.

“I will just say this: The AFN [Assembly of First Nations] has estimated that there is about a $60-billion gap,” she said. “Safe to say that obviously I have an ambitious ask in to the Finance Minister.”

Ahead of the tabling of the fiscal blueprint, chiefs at the AFN and other Indigenous leaders are also making a major push for significant spending they say is required to address the housing backlog. The issue is expected to be a major theme in the budget, expected in April, and is among shared priorities outlined in the new agreement between the Liberal government and the New Democrats.

Under the heading of reconciliation, a document on the agreement says there is a need to make a “significant additional investment in Indigenous housing in 2022.” It also says it will be up to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities to determine how housing investments are designed and delivered.

Housing has been a major concern throughout the pandemic, with overcrowded lodging presenting challenges for individuals looking to self-isolate to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said in 2020 that First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities faced a higher risk of severe outcomes, owing to health inequities and the higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions, as well as the unique challenges of remote and fly-in communities.

Ms. Hajdu pointed Wednesday to the example of Bearskin Lake First Nation in Northern Ontario that grappled with a COVID-19 outbreak this year. She said individuals who had the virus were often living in households with several others.

“You can well imagine that if you’re sharing that tight of a space that disease can circulate,” she said.

Ms. Hajdu told an AFN housing forum Wednesday that the connection between health and housing is clear. She noted tuberculosis, COVID-19 and many other health outcomes are worsened when housing is crowded, poorly constructed or in bad shape.

The AFN, which represents more than 900,000 First Nations people in 634 communities across the country, is encouraging chiefs to press Ms. Freeland, along with other parliamentarians and senior officials, on housing.

The organization says there is a need for $44-billion in federal investments to address current needs, and an additional $16-billion to accommodate population growth to 2040. The housing crisis has been created by decades of “federal neglect and underfunding,” the AFN said.

It has also pointed to statistics showing approximately 60 per cent of First Nations housing is in need of repair, with 10 per cent requiring replacement. The AFN said overcrowding is a problem, with approximately 30 per cent of housing used by multigenerational occupants.

Manitoba AFN Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said she hopes First Nations housing will figure prominently in the budget, while she described housing and infrastructure as being at “crisis levels.” She said anything short of the $60-billion requested will result in the further widening of the housing gap between First Nations and non-First Nations people in Canada.

“It is tough for families and communities,” Ms. Woodhouse said, adding First Nations have lived with the effects of this problem for generations.

There have been many deaths with house fires in communities, she added, noting she wants policy makers to consider this. She said she wants to believe there is a willing partner in the federal government to ensure life improves in communities.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report on the government’s expenditure plan. It said Indigenous-related budgetary spending has increased significantly over the past six years.

The report also noted that proposed spending in the main estimates for Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations are $39.6-billion and $5.8-billion, respectively, representing a 214-per-cent increase over Indigenous-related budgetary expenditures compared with 2017-18.

Indigenous Services Canada says the government has spent more than $3.7-billion since 2016 on Indigenous and Northern housing, and this is in addition to about $149.5-million provided every year to First Nations to support housing needs.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.