Current Problems

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

They need new homes, roads and schools. But Indigenous communities across Canada ‘can’t catch up’ thanks to staggering $349B infrastructure gap

April 9, 2024

Ottawa has pledged to close the infrastructure gap by 2030. An official said decades of underfunding means Canada has bills “yet to be paid.”

It will take nearly $59 billion to bring infrastructure in Ontario First Nations’ communities in line with the rest of the country by 2030. Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Toronto Star: In Cat Lake First Nation, there’s only ever enough money to build three new houses a year.

For the community of 680 people northwest of Sioux Lookout, Ont., the level of federal infrastructure funding doesn’t come close to addressing the community’s long-standing struggles with housing disrepair, overcrowding and mould, says chief Russell Wesley.

New housing applications to Ottawa just keep piling up, Wesley says. Meanwhile, multiple families live together in some of the reserve’s already dilapidated homes.

“We can’t catch up. We can never catch up.”

It will take nearly $59 billion to bring infrastructure in Cat Lake and other Ontario First Nations’ communities in line with the rest of the country by 2030, according to a groundbreaking analysis shared with the Investigative Journalism Bureau and the Star. That’s part of an eye-widening $349-billion infrastructure gap in Indigenous communities across Canada.

That equalization figure — which is 20 times the size of Indigenous Services Canada’s total planned spending for 2024/25 — is required to “minimize the disparity between First Nations and Canadians access to essential community infrastructure,” according to a report co-authored by First Nations organizations, engineering firms and the federal government. The study marks the first-ever calculation of the funding gap.

The report comprehensively lays out the consequences of “decades of underfunding, failed fiduciary duties and unfair distribution of Canada’s wealth as a country” in nearly 750 communities.

‘They only give us enough to survive’

The report focuses on a range of infrastructure that requires additional funding, from roads and schools to medical facilities and drinking water systems. Topping the list is housing: Two thirds of the 85,000 houses in First Nations communities require repairs, and nearly 110,000 more houses need to be built to alleviate overcrowding and account for population growth, the report calculated.

Mould, which can cause respiratory infections, asthma and other health issues, has been a persistent scourge, though a lack of government monitoring means the magnitude of the problem remains unknown, the federal auditor general recently found.

A dilapidated house in Cat Lake First Nation, a community of 680 people northwest of Sioux Lookout, Ont.Submitted

Fixing the housing inequality across the country alone would cost more than $135 billion, the study calculates.

Infrastructure inequality has caused intergenerational disadvantages for First Nations’ peoples and exacerbated youth incarceration, homelessness and rates of overdoses and suicide, the report concludes.

“It’s hard for us to get a step up when we’re constantly worried about (infrastructure),” says Chief Desmond Bull of Louis Bull Tribe, a Cree First Nation community an hour south of Edmonton.

“They only give us enough to survive, not to thrive.”

The gaps are only expected to grow with on-reserve populations projected to rise roughly two per cent each year until 2030, the report says.

Inflation to push staggering cost even higher

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government was elected in 2015, in part based on a commitment to close the gap between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada.

As recently as December 2021, Trudeau committed in a letter Indigenous Services Canada “immediate and long-term investments” to close the infrastructure gap by 2030.”

But there remains a deep divide between the promise and the reality in many First Nations communities. The report calls it a “clear injustice … and a visible blemish on Canada’s reputation as a G7 country.”

Canada’s Auditor General recently concluded there has been “no meaningful improvement” in housing conditions in First Nations communities since 2015 and that it is “unlikely” that the goal of closing the housing gap by 2030 will be met.

Closing that gap by 2040 is a far more realistic goal, and with inflation the true cost will reach nearly $528 billion, said AFN national chief Cindy Woodhouse.

“First Nations are at risk of facing more than 16 more years of inadequate access to infrastructure, housing and digital connectivity, basic essentials that are enjoyed by everyday Canadians,” she said.

Canada’s Auditor General recently concluded there has been “no meaningful improvement” in housing conditions in First Nations communities since 2015. Nathan Denette The Canadian Press

Nelson Barbosa, director general of the community infrastructure branch within Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said his department has never before explored the issue so comprehensively, and he called the report a landmark look at a “staggering” gap.

Despite a historic investment of $17 billion into First Nation communities’ infrastructure since 2015 — including an increased rate of housing funding — “the needs are great,” due to decades of “undervaluing” and “underfunding” these communities, he said.

“This country has bills that have yet to be paid.”

In northern Alberta, a tale of two roads

Buildings, roads, water, wastewater, and vehicles account for $59.5 billion in upgrades, the report found.

Dene Tha’ First Nation in northern Alberta needs a new road.

Wildfires that blazed throughout the area in 2023 crept dangerously close to the town of Chateh, in the far north of the reserve. As evacuation orders were issued, the pathway of the encroaching flames threatened to block the one dirt road in and out of the community.

The only lifeline was an unmaintained back road that once served as an access route for transport vehicles, says Chief Wilfred Hooka-Nooza, a resident of Bushe River, one of three communities that compose the First Nation which has a population of 1,800.

Under current conditions, fire and ambulance vehicles responding to distress calls in the town regularly have a difficult time during the muddy rain season.

“When the ambulance comes in, sometimes they’ll get stuck in somebody’s yard because of the mud,” says Linda Semansha, health co-ordinator and deputy for emergency management who lives in Chateh.

An ISC spokesperson said the department has helped fund road grading, repairs and gravel for unpaved roads and continues to work with community leaders.

In the neighbouring town of High Level, which is not on a First Nation, the roads are made of high-grade gravel, says Hooka-Nooza.

“The government should be able to do that as well for communities on reserve.”

Scores of schools need replacing

Fifty-six First Nation schools need to be razed and replaced and another 200 need additions to alleviate overcrowded classrooms, the report says.

An independent assessment of the high school at central Manitoba’s Garden Hill First Nation in the fall of 2023 found toxic levels of mould in the building where more than 600 students attend school, says chief Charles Knott.

Chief Charles Knott, of the Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba, says an independent assessment found toxic levels of mould in the community’s high school. Submitted

Knott, who has two grandchildren who attend the school, says, “it’s very scary for us but we have no choice. We want our kids to go to school.”

Capacity constraints have also forced some families to fly their children nearly 500 km away to school in Winnipeg.

Removing the children from the community has been triggering to residents, many of whom are residential school survivors, says Knott.

“(Parents) have no choice but to send their children out to these,” he says. “We don’t want to see them go out of the community like before.”

An ISC spokesperson said that since 2016 it has helped build 48 new schools and upgrade more than 100 more across the country.

Basic cell service still lacking

In 2010, 19-year-old Kerry Canepotatoe from Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, her cousin and two children were travelling in northern Saskatchewan when their vehicle got stuck.

They repeatedly called 911 for help but the line kept dropping from spotty cell service.

Canepotatoe decided to leave the stranded vehicle to seek help. She walked for days in the frigid wilderness before collapsing and dying from hypothermia.

The community remains without sustainable — and vital — communications infrastructure, says Walter Chief, the community’s band manager.

Security guards responding to issues in the community have had to go home to access Wi-Fi or wake up community workers to borrow a house phone to make an emergency call.

Situated roughly a 25-minute drive away from police services, “time is of the essence,” says RCMP Sgt. Earl Keewatin, whose Loon Lake detachment area includes Ministikwan.

“It feels that Ministikwan has been playing catch up and, you know, at times I feel like they’re being neglected.”

There are 363 communities that lack both broadband internet and standard cellular services, according to the report The total cost to bring internet infrastructure in these communities to an adequate level is estimated at $5.2 billion, the report says.

ISC said that since 2020 it has provided $6.2 million that will help bring rapid broadband internet to the First Nation and eight others in the area.

But Ministikwan chief Amanda Ernest says years of advocacy efforts to bring their community’s cell coverage up to modern standards have felt futile.

The provincial telecommunications provider — SaskTel — has told community leaders that Ministikwan’s population size of 1,386 people is too small to justify the construction of a cell tower.

But Pierceland, a non-Indigenous village 30 minutes away has a SaskTel cell tower despite having a population of about 600.

“SaskTel is aware that wireless coverage in and around the Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation is limited,” a company spokesperson said in a written statement. “SaskTel is currently evaluating the potential construction of a new cell tower in the area … We recognize how important wireless and broadband connectivity are to the overall health and well-being of the communities we serve.”

Nelson With files from Ryan McMahon/Investigative Journalism Bureau and Paulina Bahr/Toronto Metropolitan University School of Journalism

The Investigative Journalism Bureau is a non-profit newsroom based at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Robert Cribb

Robert Cribb is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: