What does a re-elected Liberal government mean for northern housing?
With Justin Trudeau’s Liberals once again securing a minority government, many are ready for the party to get back to work and start fulfilling campaign promises.
Of those promises, one of the most crucial for northerners is how the federal government plans to help advance the NWT’s housing priorities and end the territory’s ongoing housing crisis.
In his election campaign, re-elected Liberal MP Michael McLeod touted the work the federal government had completed in the past, stating his party’s government had invested “unprecedented levels into local housing priorities.”
McLeod cited examples like the NWT’s $60-million share of a national fund, a $25-million housing allocation in 2021’s federal budget, the forthcoming Avens Pavilion seniors’ facility in Yellowknife, and what he termed “over $100 million toward housing and infrastructure for Indigenous governments across the Northwest Territories.”
But that has been a drop in a bucket for a territory that, two years ago, reported two in every five homes were either unaffordable, in disrepair, overcrowded, or all three.
In their 2021 election platform, the Liberals committed to producing an “Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy with an initial allocation of $300 million.”
If it comes to fruition as billed, that strategy is expected to place a lot of power to buy and refurbish northern housing directly in the hands of Indigenous governments – speeding up a key shift that had slowly begun in recent years.
However, the $300-million figure could find itself immediately stretched. In the NWT alone, new homes paid for with federal dollars have recently cost between $500,000 and $1 million per house.
Asked after his re-election when the NWT could expect the new strategy to become a reality, McLeod told Cabin Radio a lot of preparatory work had already been done to establish ways of investing more money in Indigenous housing.
“I’m just wanting to see a long-term stream of funding come directly to Indigenous governments,” said McLeod, echoing a demand made by various Indigenous governments in the NWT over the past six years of Liberal government.
“At this point I don’t know formally what my role is going to be [with the strategy] but I know that I’ll be an advocate to get it done,” McLeod continued.
“I think it’s an important piece of our strategy to address housing, especially here in the North.”
In May, a federal standing committee said Indigenous peoples living off-reserve were “best-placed to address the housing needs of their people and communities” but never received long-term, sustainable funding to do it.
The committee made nine recommendations, of which creating the strategy was one. Establishing an Urban, Rural and Northern Housing Centre, with a mandate and responsibilities to be decided by Indigenous people, was another.
Many governments await cash
None of that has happened yet, but Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya told Cabin Radio “the status quo is no longer acceptable and no longer works” in the NWT. He wants exactly what the Liberals just promised: direct funding to get more done.
This summer, the Dene Nation unveiled its own housing strategy that pledged new homes built to meet northern demands by an Alberta-based company.
Yakeleya wants the federal government to support that plan, which he believes will create “viable and affordable” housing options for the Dene.
“We know the impacts of inadequate housing are not a one-time fixed cost, but [have] long-term challenges to social and physical effects for our children, our families and our Dene communities,” he said.
“I believe the missing piece of this process is giving the Indigenous leaders the respect and the opportunity to do things for themselves and the people they serve.”
Yakeleya envisages using federal funding to train locals in home repair and construction in their own communities.
He said the Dene Nation had created its own task force to work with the federal and territorial governments to make that funding happen, envisaging a three-way agreement that “recognizes the need to do better in dealing with issues of common concern, like the existing housing crisis.”
“We need to do this work together – no more of the days of the government telling us what kind of houses to build, where to build them,” he said. “It’s time now they begin the road to reconciliation and that requires many government leaders.”
The Dene Nation isn’t alone in producing its own housing strategy. Ultimately, one test of the Liberals’ new strategy will be whether it can withstand the sheer number of Indigenous governments lining up for significant sums of direct funding to address deficiencies.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation also has a strategy that focuses on helping its members to own their homes, a challenge in many northern communities.
Jason Snaggs, the First Nation’s chief executive, previously told Cabin Radio direct federal funding would bring that strategy to life.
At the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, Garry Bailey requested that Trudeau travel to the Northwest Territories to see the housing crisis first-hand. Bailey believes that might motivate the federal government to hasten the settlement of land claims.
“The government did commit to housing for all people – not just certain people,” Bailey said. “I think there’s definitely a lot of work that needs to be done to get people into their own homes.”
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit group, listed the housing deficit among 15 priorities for a new Canadian government to tackle.
“ITK has welcomed recent federal investments in infrastructure and housing in Inuit Nunangat and calls on the next federal government to pledge major new and sustained investment in the region in order to bring it into Canada, uphold Canada’s human rights obligations, and help support economic development,” a statement from the group read ahead of September 20’s polling day.
Meanwhile, promises made in previous elections have still to fully play out.
A Liberal National Housing Strategy unveiled in 2017 pledged more than $72 billion over 10 years to “build supply, making housing affordable, and address chronic homelessness.” That strategy has more than half a decade left to run.
This time around, the 2021 Liberal platform featured a housing plan that would make owning a home easier – for example by reducing mortgage costs and increasing incentives for young people – and build more of them.
While the Liberal plan states it “refuses to pit urban against rural,” some of the 2021 platform – such as a homebuyers’ bill of rights that, in part, bans foreign ownership of homes for two years – may not directly tackle the specific challenges the NWT currently faces.
However, building more homes is something every government in the territory wants. A national co-investment fund already heavily used by the NWT (after some teething problems) is set to be doubled if the Liberals follow through on their campaign pledges, potentially giving the territory tens of millions of fresh dollars for homes.
A “federal housing advocate” should also be appointed within the first 100 days of the Liberals’ new term, a position designed to work toward ending chronic homelessness and keep tabs on the federal government’s housing commitments.
McLeod said he is “confident that we’re going to start to see more investment for the long term” and argues residents will begin to see the issue being addressed on their streets.
He said: “I can foresee a real busy housing construction season coming up next year.”