Current Problems


State of housing in First Nations laid bare

May 20, 2024

Safety report filed in lawsuit describes shocking conditions in two communities

An assessment of housing in St. Theresa Point First Nation in northern Manitoba, above, and Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario found rotting foundations, insufficient insulation and leaking and buckling roofs.

Toronto Star: For years, the people of St. Theresa Point First Nation have complained about their decrepit and overcrowded housing, but felt ignored by the federal government.

Now, they hope outside experts will help them be heard.

As part of their ongoing lawsuit against the federal government, the First Nation in northern Manitoba and another in northern Ontario, Sandy Lake First Nation, recently brought in construction and safety consultants. The firm’s veteran assessors were taken aback by what they saw.

None of the roughly two dozen assessed houses met building code. A quarter should be torn down, the report found. Mould flourishes throughout the homes.

The firm saw cockroaches in a house undergoing chemical treatment: “Thousands were visible,” the report said.

After visiting another house, the firm recommended it be razed: “This house is occupied … Homeowner fell through floor day prior.”

The report shines a new light on the state of housing in First Nations across Canada, an infrastructure shortfall that the auditor general has repeatedly criticized and that the federal government says it needs to work on alleviating.

It is among scores of documents found in the court record of the $10-billion lawsuit against the federal government. The suit, originally filed in 2023, alleges Canada has “deliberately underfunded” housing on reserves to “weaken” and “force the assimilation” of First Nations.

On April 30, the Federal Court certified the lawsuit as a class action, led by the chiefs of the two First Nations and on behalf of other First Nations communities with dilapidated housing.

“Canada has sought to drive First Nations people from these reserve communities by rendering them uninhabitable,” the statement of claim alleges, resulting in a “manmade disaster” with devastating consequences for the health, prosperity and cultures of First Nations.

The federal government has not yet filed a statement of defence.

In response to questions, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said federal funding to build homes on reserves has increased 1,100 per cent compared with the previous decade. The federal government has invested $15.6 million in housing improvements in St. Theresa Point First Nation and, since 2016, $17.5 million in housing projects in Sandy Lake First Nation, ISC says.

The proportion of First Nations people living in overcrowded homes stabilized in 2021, “the first time in recent history,” an ISC spokesperson said, but added that “more work has to be done so that all First Nations have access to quality housing.

“Centuries of colonialism have contributed to the situation now facing Indigenous communities. This situation cannot be fixed overnight but significant progress is being made supported by historic investments.”

The claim says that the housing conditions in at least 75 other First Nations qualify them to join the lawsuit.

“This class action is not just speaking for our nation — it speaks to the needs of all the First Nations in Canada,” said Raymond Flett, chief of St. Theresa Point First Nation.

In March, auditor general Karen Hogan released a scathing report slamming the federal government for what she called “a distressing and persistent pattern of failure” to address on-reserve First Nations housing issues.

The report found that ISC and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. have “made little progress in improving housing conditions in First Nations communities.”

In a statement to reporters, the auditor general’s office said: “This is the fourth time that we have audited housing in First Nations communities and many of the issues we identified in our most recent audit are the same as those we reported on 20 years ago … The government needs to start with a plan to fund the investments needed to close the housing gap.”

In April, the Assembly of First Nations and Indigenous Services Canada released a report that estimated it would cost Ottawa $349 billion to close the infrastructure gap in First Nations communities.

That figure — which is more than 15 times the size of ISC’s total planned spending for 2024-25 — is required to “minimize the disparity between First Nations’ and Canadians’ access to essential community infrastructure,” the report said.

Addressing housing alone would cost $135.1 billion. The 2024 federal budget commits $918 million over five years to support narrowing the housing and infrastructure gaps in Indigenous communities.

The infrastructure report says two-thirds of the approximately 85,700 housing units in First Nations communities require repairs, while nearly 110,000 more houses need to be built.

Canada has near-total control over development projects on reserves, located on land that the Crown owns, the claim says.

Under Canada’s Constitution, the federal government is responsible for all First Nations lands, including the construction and maintenance of housing on reserves, the claim says.

“We were basically kept in prisons in our own land,” said Elvin Flett, former chief of St. Theresa Point First Nation.

While assessing the housing across the two First Nations, the firm found rotting foundations, insufficient insulation, and leaking and buckling roofs. Overburdened septic tanks have backed up toilets, and assessors saw “flowing sewage across the ground outside of many homes.”

Many homes throughout St. Theresa Point First Nation were identified as housing 15 to 32 people.

Houses in both First Nations had improperly installed electrical service panels, a fact that “surprised” the firm “as the consequences of this can be catastrophic.”

In Sandy Lake First Nation, one smoke-damaged house had suffered an electrical fire, but someone was still living inside it because they had nowhere else to go, the report states. “I have no idea why this house did not burn to the ground when it happened, but it is not safe.”

In 2022, three children — aged four, six, and nine — died in a house fire in Sandy Lake First Nation. The lawsuit alleges the tragedy illustrates how poor housing conditions create fire hazards.

ISC said the fire “is a brutal reminder that First Nations children are too often the victims of house fires in Canada.” The department said that it recently launched a revamped fire-safety strategy, co-developed with the Assembly of First Nations, but added that it has more work to do “so that the tragedy in Sandy Lake never happens again.”

Other documents recently filed in the lawsuit say that in December 2023, St. Theresa Point First Nation had to demolish its seniors home because “it was falling apart, and the roof, walls, and floors were all caving in.” The electrical infrastructure was unsafe. The demolition “has left at least a dozen of our members without housing,” Chief Flett said in an affidavit.

The housing crisis leads to overcrowding, which can exacerbate the spread of infectious illnesses like pneumonia, according to the affidavit of Chief Delores Kakegamic of Sandy Lake First Nation. Over two days in October 2023, there were 19 medevacs from the First Nation. At roughly $10,000 per medevac, the “money that is spent on emergency evacuations, in turn, cannot be invested into addressing the root cause of housing deficits and overcrowding,” Kakegamic’s affidavit reads.

For Kakegamic, the point of the lawsuit isn’t about winning a lot of money in court. It’s about making safer communities for the current and future generations.

“We want a home, a decent home, something that’s free of mould and decay.”

Centuries of colonialism have contributed to the situation now facing Indigenous communities.