The Dene Nation has outlined how it intends to acquire federal funding and begin directly tackling a housing crisis affecting Dene communities in the Northwest Territories.
Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, expects to partner with consulting firm Innovation Seven to draft a proposal for a pilot project in Kátł’odeeche First Nation (KFN). Innovation Seven specializes in infrastructure and housing solutions for First Nations across the country, he said.
While Yakeleya declined to share how much money the Dene Nation intends to request, he says the sum would be enough for the South Slave community to learn to build its own houses.
The First Nation was identified as having significant issues with suitability and adequacy in a recent community housing survey.
“The proposal is looking at how the federal government could redirect Indigenous housing money to the Dene communities,” said Yakeleya last week. “We see the Dene communities taking ownership in terms of building their own housing.”
Yakeleya said the housing crisis was nothing new – having been identified in past reports by Canada’s auditor general – but things have continued to get worse.
“For too long, the high cost of housing in our Dene communities and related problems like overcrowding and poor housing quality are at a crisis level,” he said. “The Dene … want a chance to do something about this.”
Yakeleya says his proposal focuses on long-term solutions to the housing crisis that will see community members learn trades through partnerships with Aurora College, so eventually all Dene communities will have qualified tradespeople to build and maintain houses.
He argues this means residents won’t have to wait on “outside forces” and more money will stay in the community.
“We’d like to see at least 100 houses being put into our communities – and that means we need to have a blueprint ready to go should the federal government accept our proposal,” said Yakeleya.
If the pilot project gets the green light, the Dene Nation will start looking at how to replicate the program in other NWT communities, learning from successes in Kátł’odeeche while also understanding how the project can be adapted to meet the unique needs of each community.
“The Dene blueprint must be drafted with the communities, with both hands on the drafting table, so to speak, so the Dene people feel some ownership,” Yakeleya said.
“Certainly, in our past history, the Dene have always owned their own homes, until the early 70s when the government came in with social housing. That certainly has taken away the independence of our own Indigenous housing.
“We have created a dependency now, on the government, for housing – and the housing policies under the NWT Housing Corporation don’t quite fit the needs of the Dene.”
Yakeleya said building a hundred new homes in Dene communities would not be enough, alone, to solve the housing crisis. He said that would help alleviate overcrowding but not necessarily benefit homes in need of major repairs, unless supplies and skilled labour can be directed toward them.
In early December, at a special chiefs’ assembly, the Assembly of First Nations unanimously supported a resolution called “Dene Nation control of housing in Northwest Territories” put forth by KFN chief April Martel. Support from the assembly is expected to help the Dene Nation’s lobbying of Ottawa for help.
Not a social program
Yakeleya, explaining his vision, said the Dene Nation’s home ownership project would run parallel to the NWT Housing Corporation’s social housing programs.
“We’re into a place where we’re in crisis,” he said, “and maybe we have to ask the NWT Housing Corporation, ‘You’re still doing the same thing and getting the same results. What’s going on?’”
For its part, the NWT Housing Corporation is working on community-specific housing plans and has admitted it needs to try a different approach to administering housing. Earlier this month, the corporation said it welcomed the Dene Nation’s plan.
Yakeleya said the territorial government needs to do something “really different” – but admitted the same is required of the Dene Nation.
“We need to think differently, and think big, and think bold, and make some decisions as to what it means to take over our own housing initiatives, so that we can encourage our young people that there are opportunities in the trades,” continued Yakeleya.
“We want young people in the community to own their own homes.”