The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is designing a community-driven housing strategy which creators say will be a “complete departure” from how housing in Ndilo and Dettah is currently managed.
The strategy’s development comes at a time when the territory is facing serious deficiencies in its housing stock. With close to half of the NWT’s housing deemed unsuitable, inadequate, or unaffordable, a range of Dene leaders have stated they must take control of funding for housing in their communities.
The Yellowknives Dene strategy aims to have the First Nation control its entire housing system, including the design, build, governance, and administration of housing in its two communities.
While the housing strategy is in phase one of five, Yellowknives Dene chief executive Jason Snaggs hopes the First Nation can begin building within two years.
Getting to work before settling the Akaitcho land claim is important, Snaggs said, as a final settlement could yet be five years away.
Snaggs said the idea, if funding comes through, would be to focus on infill – meaning construction on undeveloped land within the two communities, a policy already being pursued by the neighbouring City of Yellowknife.
A document outlining the First Nation’s vision for its new strategy states the Yellowknives Dene have identified “adequate, affordable, and appropriate housing” as an “ongoing major concern.” The vision adds one-size-fits-all solutions at the territorial and federal level have failed.
The NWT’s bureau of statistics recently reported 42.7 percent of the territory’s housing stock has significant problems. Those homes either required major repairs, didn’t have running water, didn’t have enough rooms for the people living there, or cost more than 30 percent of household income to live in. In a decade, the proportion of homes deemed to meet at least one of those criteria rose 11 percent.
In Dettah, the bureau’s report found just under 60 percent of homes had housing issues – ranking sixth among NWT communities facing the poorest housing conditions. More than 40 percent of Ndilo homes were reported to have problems.
Those concerns translate in practice into overcrowding, people couchsurfing as they have unstable housing, others on the verge of eviction, and some forced to consider moving away from their community, according to Snaggs. He said the NWT Housing Corporation’s current system is “archaic” and “ancient” in how it seeks to address those problems.
To him, the system does not encourage homeownership. Instead, said Snaggs, people spend decades in rental homes without building equity and with no access to mortgages.
“We want to create … a complete departure from the housing corp. We want to make it that our sole focus is to encourage homeownership,” Snaggs said.
The housing corporation could not be reached for comment. Most NWT government employees are on mandatory leave for the holiday season.
Ryerson University’s Together Design Lab is working with the Yellowknives Dene on the plan. The lab has worked with Indigenous communities in Ontario, including the Eembatong First Nation and Nishnawbe Aski Nation, to craft community-led housing plans and figure out ways to fund those plans.
The First Nation is also studying work carried out by the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia, Kahnawà:ke in Quebec, and Membertou in Nova Scotia.
Shelagh McCartney, Together Design Lab’s director, said housing in Dettah and Ndilo was built to “facilitate a model around the nuclear family.”
“That’s very much a southern export at that time, from the 60s and later,” she said. “When we look at the way these houses are organized and arranged, they don’t culturally reflect the communities that are living within them.”
In a 2016 paper, McCartney suggested federal “suburban” houses built in many Indigenous communities didn’t take into account the local climate, culture, or values of the people. She says the resulting housing is linked to “mental and physical health outcome gaps and the ongoing crisis of Indigenous youth suicide.”
The lab pledges to involve people from Ndilo and Dettah in its work. Community meetings and school visits were held in 2019. Consultants reported a demand from residents for more housing, more community spaces, a convenience store, a gas station for Dettah, and a concern from Elders about protection of certain areas.
McCartney said the lab still wants to “involve more of the hunters and the trappers and different types of families and reach even farther out into the community.”
How will the new system work?
The first phase of developing the Yellowknives Dene strategy entails conducting a needs assessment, happening this winter, and a policy and planning review. As the process is intended to be community-driven, McCartney said she could not say how the final product will look.
Snaggs hopes to better understand the community’s needs – including health, wellness and economic opportunities – then develop a community plan and governance structure, including who will manage the housing system and who will build the homes.
Jason Snaggs, chief executive of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
“Our approach is not a question of building houses. Our strategy and our approach is holistic. We want to build homes,” Snaggs said.
If all goes to plan, money for the work would come directly from the federal government. The Det’on Cho Corporation, which is the First Nation’s economic development arm, could take on the construction work and provide jobs for locals.
The NWT Housing Corporation has made a $110,000 contribution toward the housing strategy’s development, which is estimated to cost $800,000 in total.
“I think the stars have aligned in the sense that we have the support of the federal government … we haven’t seen the money as yet, but we have that support,” said Snaggs, who ultimately hopes the Yellowknives Dene’s housing plan will become a model for export to other communities.
“If we don’t dream it, we don’t plan for it, it will never come,” he said.