One Manitoba chief says the rising costs to build houses on reserves have halted construction altogether, but some in the community feel he’s not doing enough to remedy the problem.
Shamattawa First Nation Chief Jeff Napoakesik said many of his houses built 20 to 30 years ago wouldn’t pass inspection today and admitted that a new house hasn’t been constructed on the reserve in three years due to rising material costs.
“In 2004, when I came on board as chief, it cost $150,000 to build a house – a three or four bedroom single dwelling, material, labour and shipping it in, all of that stuff,” he said.
“Now, it costs $300,000. We used to build three to four houses each year just with the funds we would get annually from the Department of Indian Affairs, but we simply cannot afford to do that anymore with the state of the cost to build. We’re just not building houses. We will see about this year.”
Napoakesik’s sentiment doesn’t sit well with Sheri Ann Schweder-Koostachin, who along with her husband Gerald, moved back to Shamattawa in 2012 after he left the army.
She says the deplorable conditions could be fixed if everyone banded together.
“The state of our housing is very poor because our chief won’t make changes regarding our community to start paying rent,” said Schweder-Koostachin. “He is so dead set against it that our people are suffering, especially our young adults.
“I strongly believe our housing crisis is one of the biggest contributing factors in our suicides. (There’s) no privacy, no place to call their own for young adults.”
Schweder-Koostachin and her husband moved into a ready-to-move (RTM) home in 2012. She claims it was never completed and that contractors ripped her family off.
“For the cost of what they were with in total of buying them, shipping and set up, I think they are garbage,” she said. “My father-in-law had to really complete most of what we really needed for living in. He had to finish the furnace … we had no heat.”
She also says RTM homes often arrive damaged due to the stress put on them from traveling winter roads. Shamattawa is located 743 km northeast of Winnipeg.
“I can’t remember the last time a home was actually built here,” she said. “(The RTM houses) are very cold. Bringing them in on the winter roads causes a lot of damage. By the time they put them up, they seem old and worn out.”
Napoakesik was not immediately available to respond to Schweder-Koostachin comments.
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples (SSCAP) released a June 2015 report that offered a summary of the state of on-reserve housing.
The committee was told by witnesses, “Far too often we see First Nations that barely get enough to build a home and they build whatever they can, and it just doesn’t last and you have the same problem over and over again.”
The state of housing on reserves across Canada has been a contentious issue for many years. Many reserves report deplorable conditions, including many of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba.
Construction costs, inflated labour rates and transportation challenges continue to be major hurdlesfor northern and remote communities as do, perhaps, the financial demands of those contracted to build new dwellings on reserves.
“If I was to go up to a reserve…if someone said to me, ‘Do you want to go build 50 houses on a reserve?’ I’d be interested,” said Ron, a local Winnipeg house builder who asked his last name not be used.
“But if I was stuck up on a reserve all summer, I’d want to make sure it’s worth my while. Sometimes, I would get three times as much as I would get here in Winnipeg.”
And it’s not just Manitoba’s First Nations with a freeze on new constructions.
In the same SSCAP report, the committee “identified the need to examine current initiatives to addressing housing on reserve. For example, although the $300 million set aside by the federal government in a trust fund for the First Nations Market Housing Fund in 2008 was expected to result in 25,000 new homes in 10 years, the most recent data provided to the committee was that 99 homes had been built by May 2015.”
Costs to build new homes in remote communities are compounded by a variety of factors, including access to winter roads and the lack of increases in funding levels to make up for transportation costs, which includes flying in materials when winter roads are unable to be built.
“These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that many of these communities have limited access to a local economy and face high unemployment levels, making it almost impossible for individuals to build their own homes,” according to the SSCAP’s report.
Median annual income on reserves was $11,300, according to the 2006 census.
“Therefore, these communities are thus particularly reliant on the federal government to provide their housing,” the report suggests. “While Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) takes into account the increased costs of northern and remote communities through a remote and isolation index in their funding formula, witnesses remarked that this index is not reflective of the needs of these communities, and that the amount allocated for the remoteness factor ‘must be greatly increased.’”
Schweder-Koostachin feels securing funding is a waiting game at the best of times.
“We as a community have to start looking at self-sustaining options,” she said. “We can’t look at hand outs forever.”