Four young Colville Lake residents believe they have a plan to overcome the Sahtu community's severe shortage of adequate and suitable housing.
The four say they are going to build their own log houses in a community where nine in 10 homes have at least one major housing problem, according to a November NWT Bureau of Statistics report.
Of Colville Lake's 36 homes, the report said 30 were deemed inadequate – meaning they are in need of major repairs or don’t have running water.
Twelve of the homes were unsuitable, meaning they didn't have enough bedrooms to accommodate all the occupants. Two were considered unaffordable, meaning the residents were paying more than 30 percent of their household income to live there.
"I’m trying to make it on my own," said Kyle Tutcho, who first spoke to CBC early in the year about his plans to build a log house overlooking the lake.
He collected about 80 logs last winter. When he finishes working on the winter road this winter, he plans to head back out on the land to cut down more. He hopes to build the house frame next summer.
Tutcho is the furthest ahead among his friends and cousins: he has the blueprint for his house completed but has still to figure out materials for the roof.
Meanwhile, his younger cousin plans to build a miniature log house. The two took a log home-building course in British Columbia several years ago.
When the time comes to do the electrical work and plumbing, Tutcho says he will find a book and teach himself.
First, he has to submit finished blueprints to the Behdzi Ahda First Nation, which he says has promised to help him get the necessary materials. Under that arrangement, Tutcho says he will pay back the First Nation over the years to come.
“Once I’ve built the house I’ll own it, and I can’t be kicked out,” he said, citing stories of renters who claimed they were evicted because they couldn’t pay the NWT Housing Corporation’s bills.
Like others in small communities, he’s critical of the housing corporation’s policies and number of available homes.
“The town is getting overcrowded. Some of us need to make our own plans because [the housing corporation] isn’t putting up any buildings any time soon,” Tutcho said.
“Housing is a big issue. I'm not the only one struggling in this community.”
'We do need new units'
At the legislature on Wednesday, Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green directly asked the NWT's new housing minister, Paulie Chinna, whether the NWT Housing Corporation was "prepared to revisit its decision not to add any more units to its inventory" – and commit to building new homes across the territory.
Chinna, as the MLA for the Sahtu, is Colville Lake's representative.
Responding to Green, Chinna said she did intend to "revisit the amount of units that are existing for the NWT."
"We are in a housing crisis, we do need new public units," she said. "I want to review what we have on the ground and look at the inventory."
When Green asked if Chinna would lobby her cabinet colleagues for more money to buy those new homes, Premier Caroline Cochrane intervened by leaning across and, apparently lightheartedly, interjecting: "Just say yes!"
"Yes, we will be lobbying," Chinna duly replied.
While the federal government has injected tens of millions of dollars into NWT housing in recent years, alongside territorial investments, all of that money is earmarked to maintain or upgrade existing units. Little cash is currently available to add new homes.
Help from new housing programs?
Tom Williams, president and chief executive of the NWT Housing Corporation, said many homes in smaller communities are in disrepair because people can't access the materials, tools, or skilled labour needed to maintain them.
Now, the corporation is considering turning itself into a form of hardware store for residents.
“We may be looking at creating a new program in the future that will allow for our local housing organizations to provide that service to community members," said Williams, "where they can purchase materials from our local housing organization in the absence of a hardware store." The program remains a concept for now, he said.
Meanwhile, the corporation is rolling out housing plans for each community over the next two years. The plans, developed in collaboration with community governments, are intended to identify each place's housing needs and priorities – and the solutions that will work.
Colville Lake 'a shining little star'
The Dene Nation told Cabin Radio it has little faith in the NWT Housing Corporation's long-term ability to deliver quality housing.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya worries the community housing plans won't turn out to be as effective as the corporation hopes, saying the corporation's policies have, in his view, historically not met the needs of the Dene.
“I’m not sure if this approach that they’re talking about is just words without any real impact," he pondered.
However, Yakeleya had only good things to say about the log home initiative in Colville Lake.
“Colville Lake is the shining little star that says: this is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to wait around for anybody, we’ll get the money, and we’ll start building our own homes for our own people,” said Yakeleya.
At a special chiefs' assembly in early December, the Assembly of First Nations unanimously supported a resolution entitled "Dene Nation control of housing in Northwest Territories." Yakeleya intends to use that resolution to seek direct federal funding for Dene housing initiatives.
“Sometimes it just takes an initiative like Colville Lake to show that we, as Dene, need to take ownership of housing and not rely on the territorial government, because that creates dependency,” he argued.
“We want our own independent homes built by our own people. We know we have the solutions,” said Yakeleya. “We need to go back to that way of thinking and we support Colville Lake, 110 percent."
Ollie Williams contributed reporting.