How should remote NWT communities access housing supplies?

Access to tools and materials is a challenge as communities and residents try to address the poor condition of much NWT housing – but views differ on how to make that access easier.

Late last year, the NWT Housing Corporation’s president suggested one option might be for its housing partners in communities to operate as a form of hardware store.

However, that plan immediately drew ire from the NWT Chamber of Commerce, which said the idea was “extremely upsetting and discouraging.”


Tom Williams, president of the corporation, had told Cabin Radio and NNSL local housing organizations could help residents purchase materials if no hardware store existed in their community.

“It could even provide a repair service for a fee, where maybe staff at the local housing organizations provide that service to private homeowners,” Williams said in December.

“Right now, it’s hard to get a contractor in a lot of our small communities so they usually have to fly in. They don’t have that contractor capacity. So you know, providing assistance like that will go a long way in our in our small communities.”

Though Williams stressed such a program remains for now a concept and not an actual plan, the NWT Chamber of Commerce responded in a letter telling Williams it was not the government’s role to compete with private industry.

“This will irreparably harm existing local businesses in an already grim economic outlook,” read the letter, which was also signed by representatives of chambers in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Simpson, Norman Wells, and Thebacha. Inuvik’s chamber was not a signatory.


The letter continued: “We encourage the housing corp to be a partner with the local hardware stores as indicated in your mission statement and purchase all applicable materials directly from the existing hardware stores either within the community, or the closest neighbouring community, and/or create credits for those individuals requiring materials to improve/repair their homes.”

Renée Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce, told Cabin Radio: “The majority of our communities have privately owned and operated hardware stores, who have struggled to stay open due to the excessively high cost of operating … due to the remoteness of where they are.”

The housing corporation had said any program like this would only be rolled out in communities without a hardware store. Comeau argued communities without a hardware store are usually serviced by a Northern Store or Arctic Co-op, which have the ability to bring in materials.

In this instance, Comeau said, the corporation and territorial government “need to look at partnering with local development corporations in those communities that do not have access to hardware store, or a viable option to order materials in for residents. They need to start helping to support and bolster entrepreneurs.”


Small business ‘needs support’

Kirby Groat, president of the Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce, said the housing corporation and local housing authority should support local businesses where they can.

“Private enterprises in the smaller communities are ultra-important. Small business cannot survive with total support from the government,” said Groat.

“More money would stay in the community and the dollars would runs around town for a long time,” he added. “You can’t get government business if the government has established themselves as a business.

“The government sucks everything back into themselves and they hire more staff and the poor private people get smaller and it gets harder to run business, and then the government whines because they can’t get anyone to supply them with anything.

“I ran a hardware store for many years and it’s difficult … but it was a lifeline in this town and we need to get that back.”

Community engagement

Comeau agreed the NWT Housing Corporation has a responsibility to ask communities what they need and reduce the barriers preventing materials reaching communities.

The corporation says it is already engaging with every community in the NWT over the next two years, to develop housing plans that reflect each community’s specific needs and solutions.

“This gives the NWT Housing Corporation, housing stakeholders, other levels of government, private investors, and residents more specific information on the needs of communities and residents,” Williams said, explaining the project.

“The days have changed in how we deliver. Governments used to dictate what the communities got in terms of capital investments. Now … it’s actually driven by the communities themselves.”

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya has expressed concern that these community housing plans won’t be effective, saying he believes the corporation’s policies have not met the needs of Dene people in the past.

This sentiment was echoed by some small communities with major housing issues following an NWT Bureau of Statistics report that noted housing quality in the North is getting worse.