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On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change

Photo Construction of new school in Membertou First Nation, Nova Scotia
Photo Construction of new school in Membertou First Nation, Nova Scotia

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About the Study

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples began its study on housing and infrastructure in November 2013. Over the course of the study, the Committee heard from over 80 witnesses representing individual First Nations, tribal councils, First Nations organizations, financial institutions, private sector organizations, and federal government departments and agencies. The Committee visited 16 First Nations communities from Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. In February 2015, the Committee tabled an interim report on housing which identified key issues related to housing on reserve.

Housing in many First Nations communities in a state of crisis

In many First Nations communities, the housing situation is in a state of crisis. It is widely acknowledged that there is a serious housing shortage on reserve, estimated at between 35,000 and 85,000 units across the country. Overcrowding is one of the results of the housing shortage. The Committee has heard that it is not unusual for up to 18 people to live in a small bungalow. Equally troubling is the poor condition of existing homes in many communities. Housing on reserve deteriorates more quickly than housing off-reserve for a number of reasons, including the use of poor quality building materials, lack of enforceable building codes, overcrowding, and insufficient funds and support to manage and maintain housing. An estimated 37% of housing units on reserve are in need of major repairs.

Photo of houses

Barriers to private market housing on reserve

Not all First Nations communities experience the housing crisis to this extent. Several First Nations have a long-standing tradition of private home ownership. In some cases, this may be attributed to revolving loan funds established by First Nations communities to provide financing to members. Other communities are benefiting from economic development, and have individuals wanting to purchase their own homes on reserve. However, building housing on reserve is different from building housing off-reserve. Restrictions in the Indian Act prevent the use of property as collateral, making it difficult for individuals to obtain mortgages. Another barrier to constructing housing in some First Nations communities is the lack of serviceable lots. Limited infrastructure funding makes it difficult for many First Nations communities to put in place the necessary infrastructure - such as roads, water, and sewer services - which need to be in place in order to build new homes.

Photo of new housing developments need basic infrastructure such as streets, water, sewers and electricity (Eskasoni First Nation, Nova Scotia)
Photo of housing construction in We Wai Kai First Nation in British Columbia is inspected by city inspectors

Innovation needed for financing infrastructure on reserve

Visiting First Nations communities, the Committee saw first-hand the magnitude of the infrastructure deficit on reserve - over-flowing sewage lagoons and communities with boil-water advisories which had been in place for over a decade. Witnesses suggested that addressing the infrastructure deficit on reserve will cost between $3-8 billion. Rather than being financed over time, infrastructure on reserve is largely paid for up-front by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). The Committee heard that federal funding for housing and infrastructure on reserve is insufficient to meet community needs, therefore requiring innovative approaches. However, on reserve there are fewer financing options available to address this deficit. The Committee explored innovative approaches to financing infrastructure on reserve, including leveraging own source revenues and property taxes through bonds, ministerial loan guarantees, and public private partnerships.

Summary of Recommendations

  • Removing the 2% cap on annual increases on funding for on-reserve programs and services from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC);
  • Providing adequate funding and greater flexibility in the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program (also known as the Section 95 program);
  • Making it possible for First Nations to hire qualified housing managers through designated funding as part of AANDC’s Band Support Funding Program ;
  • Moving toward the implementation and enforcement of building codes in First Nations communities;
  • Assessing the adequacy of the shelter allowance component of the Income Assistance Program and addressing the regional discrepancies in the application of that program;
  • Developing a housing strategy for remote and isolated First Nations communities; including a review the adequacy of the remote and isolation index;
  • Simplifying the process for First Nations members to access mortgages backed by a Ministerial Loan Guarantee and expanding the program to allow First Nations governments to access a Ministerial Loan Guarantee;
  • Evaluating the First Nations Market Housing Fund (FNMHF) and reinforcing its capacity development component;
  • Simplifying the process for First Nations to be scheduled to the First Nations Land Management Act (FNLMA);
  • Exploring the possibility, in consultation with First Nations, of developing opt-in legislation which could facilitate private property ownership for First Nations members living on reserve;
  • Creating a new ministerial loan guarantee program to help finance infrastructure on-reserve;
  • Facilitating First Nations’ access to “Indian Moneys” which, as currently required by the Indian Act, are held in trust for First Nations in the Consolidated Revenue Fund;
  • Providing support for First Nations to develop long term comprehensive community plans which could help them plan for the future.

Senators who participated in this study

Photo of Senator Patterson

Dennis Glen Patterson
C — (Nunavut)

Photo of Senator Dyck

Deputy Chair
Lillian Eva Dyck
Lib — (Saskatchewan)

Photo of Senator Beyak

Lynn Beyak
C — (Ontario)

Photo of Senator Enverga

Tobias C. Enverga Jr.
C - (Ontario)

Photo of Senator Lovelace Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas
C - (New Brunswick)

Photo of Senator Moore

Wilfred P. Moore
Lib. - (Stanhope St. / South Shore, Nova Scotia)

Photo of Senator Ngo

Thanh Hai Ngo
C - (Ontario)

Photo of Senator Raine

Nancy Greene Raine
C - (Thompson – Okanagan – Kootenay, British Columbia)

Photo of Senator Sibbeston

Nick G. Sibbeston
Lib. - (Northwest Territories)

Photo of Senator Tannas

Scott Tannas
Lib. - (Alberta)

Ex-officio members of the committee:
The Honourable Senators Claude Carignan, P.C. (or Yonah Martin) and James S. Cowan (or Joan Fraser)

Other Senators who have participated from time to time in the study:
The Honourable Senators Salma Ataullahjan, Douglas Black, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, Andrée Champagne, P.C., Jane Cordy, Don Meredith, Jim Munson, Victor Oh, Bob Runciman, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, John D. Wallace and Charlie Watt.

Contact information

General Information:
613-990-0088 or 1-800-267-7362


Mailing Address:
Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples
The Senate of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada, K1A 0A4