If you’re one of the thousands of Crees on waiting lists for subsidized housing, the news isn’t good. At the current rate of housing construction, it will take until the year 2009 before every Eastern James Bay Cree who needs a new home right now gets one. And that’s not counting the fact that another 75 families are added to the waiting lists for subsidized housing each year.
“At that rate, we’ll never catch up,” says Brian Craik, responsible for housing issues at the Grand Council of the Crees.
Craik says the problem may get worse before it gets any better. Funding from Ottawa for on-reserve housing has fallen by a third in the last decade. All eyes are now on the new Liberal government, which is set to announce a new housing policy in the next few months. It’s likely there will be new cuts.
“The government wants something new, but no one knows what it is,” says Craik. He fears that, in the name of attacking a runaway deficit, the Liberals may carry out a Tory threat to make dramatic new cuts to the First Nations housing budget.
Before getting turfed out of office in October, the Tories were sitting on a plan to drastically reduce the amount of money given to First Nations homebuyers in the form of grants, and replace this with loans to be paid back with interest.
Al Horner, director of Indian programming and funding allocation in the federal Indian Affairs department, wouldn’t give any hints about the new housing policy. But even he acknowledged that the government isn’t doing nearly enough. “Between the need to properly maintain homes and the fact that there is a fairly healthy backlog, the current rate of government expenditures would not in itself meet the demand,” Horner said. “That’s a well-known situation that’s one
of the first issues the chiefs raise when I meet with them.”
Horner’s department spends $137 million each year for on-reserve housing, an amount that has remained frozen for a decade. During that time, inflation has eaten up a third of the value of the spending.
The federal government doesn’t have figures on the total number of First Nations people on waiting lists for subsidized housing across the country. Separate lists are compiled by each First Nation. Craik said 1,200 new houses are needed in the Eastern James Bay Cree communities alone. Last year, only 75 new houses were built for Crees with federal funds. At that rate, the existing housing backlog won’t be cleared up for 15 years.
Horner said his department is waiting for the Liberal Throne Speech on January 19 before determining a new housing policy. Horner is waiting to see whether the new government is going to be as deficit-conscious as the Tories were. If the Throne Speech contains a lot of belt-tightening language, Indian Affairs may come back with a recommendation of major cuts to housing subsidies, Horner implied.
Craik expressed frustration with the haphazard way the federal government allocates housing funds. Stable funding would help Crees plan a long-term housing policy to ensure housing goes to those people who need it the most. A housing policy could also include rules barring preferential treatment in the allocation of housing.
Such a policy could also address the wide disparity in how much contractors charge for construction of a house in different communities. The average new house in Chisasibi costs about $160,000 to build. One in Mistissini costs only $100-110,000, whereas one in Waswanipi costs less than $100,000.