Ottawa behind on First Nations housing: audit

An evaluation of the federal government’s involvement in housing on First Nations reserves over 13 years confirms what critics have long contended: Ottawa is not keeping up with housing support, and conditions are actually getting worse.

OTTAWA — An evaluation of the federal government’s involvement in housing on First Nations reserves over 13 years confirms what critics have long contended: Ottawa is not keeping up with housing support, and conditions are actually getting worse.

The federal government is meeting its own targets for constructing social housing on reserves, but the aboriginal population is growing more quickly than the government plan, says the audit of on-reserve housing support.

“Despite ongoing construction of new housing on-reserve, the shortfall still exists and appears to be growing rather than diminishing,” says the evaluation commissioned by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

At the same time, housing is often sub-standard and quickly falls apart. The audit says there is not enough funding to pay for maintenance.

“As quickly as new units come on stream, they require aggressive maintenance because of the overcrowding and heavy “wear and tear” they take,“ says the February 2011 report posted on the Aboriginal Affairs website this month.

“There is not yet sufficient capacity within First Nations communities to do the maintenance, and limited personal funds with which to pay for someone else to do the work.”

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says the government is well aware of the problems, and is putting substantial resources towards resolving them.

There are serious health and safety consequences for communities, the report warns.

Overcrowding is still a major problem, although not as bad as in the past, the report adds. The proportion of houses considered overcrowded has dropped by a third over 13 years, but it is still six times higher than for non-aboriginal Canadians.

The federal government regularly spends about $272 million a year on on-reserve housing, and also allotted an additional $192 million over five years in the 2005 budget.

The audit did not examine the most recent bout of spending through the federal government’s stimulus plan, which put substantial money into construction.

Rather, the review focused on implementation of the First Nations housing policy that was first introduced in 1996 and persists to this day.

The review also underlined jurisdictional challenges.

Governments and First Nations decided they should share responsibility for building and maintaining on-reserve housing. But no one is exactly sure what this “shared responsibility” means, the audit points out.

“Until that understanding is negotiated, (Aboriginal Affairs) and First Nations are left trying to achieve the objectives of the housing policy through murky waters.”

The report urges Ottawa to clarify its policies and objectives, devise better ways to train local community leaders to keep watch over housing quality and quantity, and to make sure that new housing at least meets building code requirements.

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