A file photo of Colville Lake. Charwalker/Wikimedia
The NWT’s housing agency is backing away from development of plans for each community, saying that work is now better led by Indigenous groups.
The change in part follows the money. Increasingly, all-important federal housing cash is being directed to Indigenous governments rather than flowing through the GNWT.
Housing NWT had previously committed to producing housing plans that set out the individual needs of all 33 Northwest Territories communities. To date, five have been published on the agency’s website.
But Eleanor Young, Housing NWT’s president for the past year, last month told an NWT Association of Communities meeting that her organization will step back and instead offer support to Indigenous governments as they develop plans of their own.
“In the last couple of years, there has been a fairly significant change in the amount of funding and the approach to funding,” Young told Cabin Radio. “Canada is now directly funding Indigenous governments for housing and other services.
“We’ve agreed to take our cue from the Indigenous government in each community on how they want to move forward.
“At the end of the day, we’re still getting planning for housing. Our priority is housing, but it doesn’t have to be the approach we originally set forward.”
Indigenous leaders have long advocated for a broader role in housing provision. In recent months, the NWT government has signed agreements with the Sahtu Secretariat and Tłı̨chǫ Government related to cooperation on housing.
In June, a report from a parliamentary committee on Indigenous housing found the federal government had failed to recognize the importance of self-determination. That report urged the delivery of more funding directly to Indigenous governments without requiring a system of applications and grants.
In August, the Tłı̨chǫ Government said it was using $42 million in federal funding to roll out an eight-step housing action plan.
While the Tłı̨chǫ Government said the plan itself was not a public document, highlights published in a news release included the acquisition of 26 new modular homes, work to improve infrastructure in Tłı̨chǫ communities, and a master plan for “the construction of Tłı̨chǫ-designed housing solutions for Tłı̨chǫ communities.”
The Tłı̨chǫ Government says it is also establishing a Department of Housing and Infrastructure, developing a homeowners’ maintenance and repair program, assessing the condition of private homes across the region, and developing a trades and apprenticeship strategy.
The Tłı̨chǫ approach reflects a concern that previous solutions, federally or territorially led, had not been adapted to fit the communities and peoples they affect.
In communities across the territory, Elders tell stories of being forced into government housing that didn’t fit their lifestyle in locations outside traditional settlement areas.
Jean Marie River Elder Lucy Simon, speaking in June, described some homes to Cabin Radio as “colourful government houses built out of southern materials [that are] expensive, ugly, and don’t last.”
“They make no sense here,” Simon said. “We have a sawmill just outside the community here in Jean Marie. We have wood and we have the knowledge.”
In Colville Lake, Chief Wilbert Kochon told Cabin Radio in March that GNWT-built housing often falls into disrepair as certifications and specific skills are required for its maintenance. People with the right qualifications aren’t readily available in Colville Lake. Because of concerns about liability, Kochon said at the time, community members aren’t allowed to make repair attempts of their own.
“They put in heaters that no one’s certified to fix,” Kochon said. “If one breaks, it’s a $4,000 replacement. We googled it and realized that it’s a simple fix, so people start to try to fix them – but they get penalized for it.”
The Dene Nation is another example of the shift in funding strategies.
In 2019, the Dene Nation announced a plan to secure direct federal funding for housing for the first time. In May 2022 the group succeeded, securing $600,000 from the federal government to create a Housing and Infrastructure Secretariat.
What next for Housing NWT?
The shift has the potential to leave the territory’s housing agency in an identity crisis.
That uncertainty has already been felt at the community level. In some cases, Young told Cabin Radio, the boards of LHOs – local housing organizations, which act as Housing NWT’s representatives in communities – had reported that “they aren’t sure why they exist, they’re not quite sure what their roles and responsibilities are any more.”
Young said Housing NWT is now trying to make those LHOs more effective.
Over the past year – during which Housing NWT has undergone a “strategy renewal” that also involved changing its name from the NWT Housing Corporation – the agency has discussed ways to reduce red tape and allow for more decisions to be made within communities.
“There is absolutely a desire to see as much authority as possible on the ground level, in the community with the LHOs, because they’re the ones that understand that community the best,” Young said.
Changes could give those community-based offices increased power to make spending decisions locally, for example, without having to consult the head office.
“There is still money flowing to Housing NWT,” said Young. “The ground is shifting, and it’s a little hard to predict how it will look in the future, but at the end of the day … we, as Housing NWT, are going to have to be a little bit more flexible in terms of the relationship with each Indigenous government, and kind-of take our cue from our relationship and that conversation.”
In short, the organization’s mandate in the NWT’s 33 communities is in flux. The path forward will depend on feedback from Indigenous leadership.
“We could still be delivering public housing, market housing… it could be a mix of things,” said Young. “They may choose to take some things on and leave some things with us. There could be a desire, over the long term, for them to take on all housing needs.
“It’s going to be a patchwork, depending on the desires and capacity of each Indigenous government on how they want to proceed. I’m willing to look at any ideas to do things better, to get more housing available to the residents of the North.”