Reimagining housing policy in Canada: First Nations leadership, vision and voices

Speaking Notes
Marie-Josée Houle
Federal Housing Advocate
Office of the Federal Housing Advocate

The Federal Housing Advocate's Keynote Address to the 5th National
First Nations Housing Forum
March 22-23, 2022

Video address
20 minutes

check against delivery

Thank you for that introduction. Chi-Miigwetch.

Thank you to Knowledge Keeper Roberta Oshkabewisens for that moving prayer and to all of the Elders and Chiefs who are gathered here today.

A special thank you – miigwetch – to National Chief Archibald for inviting me to speak today and to Manitoba Regional Chief Woodhouse for her leadership on the Chief’s Committee on Housing and Infrastructure.

I would also like to thank and acknowledge with great respect the diversity of participants that are present, from front line housing managers and builders, to Tribal Councils and regional coordinators, analysts and political advocates, national organizers, advisors and lobbyists – you are all working towards transforming First Nations housing policy.

I am honoured to be here with all of you.

Before I continue, I wish to acknowledge the gift of speaking with you today from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation, whose presence here reaches back to time immemorial.

I also recognize that today, the land and waters of what is now known as Ottawa is a gathering place for First Nations, Inuit and Métis from across Canada.

And since this is a virtual forum, I would also like to honour all the various First Nations territories represented here.

This land acknowledgement is a commitment to the relationship we share and are building together – one based on friendship, peace, mutual respect and reconciliation.

I am here today in my new role as the Federal Housing Advocate, but first and foremost, I am here as a person who has experienced poverty, displacement, geographic marginalization and housing precarity.

I also bring professional experience advocating for tenant rights within the community housing sector, and pushing all levels of government to create a more equitable housing system.

In accepting this role, Indigenous housing issues were immediately top of mind and a key priority for me.

As I embark on my role as the Federal Housing Advocate, it is an opportunity to address the longstanding critical issues that result in First Nations people being denied adequate housing and their human rights every day.

I want to make it clear that my role is as an independent, nonpartisan watchdog. It is part of my job description to criticize the government and hold it to account. This is why my office and team are based at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

I am here to learn, here to listen, and here to work together to advance your priorities. I am here to push for meaningful solutions to urgent problems.

As we begin this forum, I want to start by acknowledging the enduring effects of colonialism and systemic racism that continue to perpetuate dispossession, displacement and violence for First Nations people.

This includes housing policies and their impacts on the right to adequate housing. From the disproportionate impacts among people experiencing homelessness, to First Nations people facing inadequate housing from sea to sea to sea, and to the continued removal of children and youth from their homes, communities and lands through the foster care system.

I also share in the collective grief that has rippled across the country following the confirmation of gravesites of First Nations children who suffered and died due to the residential school system and its policies.

I offer my deepest condolences to all of the families and communities who are impacted, and I stand in solidarity with them and with all of you.

Despite these realities, First Nations people have demonstrated with great leadership what it means to claim human rights, and how First Nations approaches to housing and homelessness can lead the reimagining of housing policy generally.

And that is at the heart of what I want to talk to you about today: First Nations leadership, First Nations approaches and First Nations voices are critical to reimagining housing policy in Canada.

First Nations leadership has shown us all a new vision for what housing can and should be.

A place to honour culture and traditions. A social good. A place to connect to land, family and community. And a key pillar in environmental stewardship and sustainability.

I want to touch on what I see as three key opportunities in this area. I see these three key components as critical to driving forward the right to housing for First Nations.

First, solutions to inadequate housing and homelessness must be grounded in human rights, including First Nations rights.

Second, the time for action and change is now.

Third, change is going to take all of us.

Before I begin, I want to tell you about the time I spent in British Columbia last summer.

I was on my way to visit my mother at her home on the West Bank Reserve.

I had no way of knowing that my trip would coincide with the wildfires that raged in the BC interior.

I saw the flames light up the night sky as I flew from Vancouver to Kelowna.

In the week that followed, my mother and I breathed in the smoke from those fires.

We watched as the coyotes, deer and bear inched closer to our homes, in search of protection.

We sat wondering if we, too, would be forced to evacuate, as many of my friends in Kamloops had.

My heart ached for the people who had to experience the worst-case scenario: being forced to leave everything behind and losing their homes and communities.

Many of you have experienced these conditions first hand, and have already come to the same conclusions that I have: That the impacts of climate change cannot be ignored.

And that climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and inequities when it comes to housing are intersecting crises that are hitting First Nations and Indigenous Peoples the hardest.

Living in a remote location, as many First Nations communities are, makes these crises even more severe.

On March 4th, Manitoba Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse spoke to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs about the Effects of the Housing Shortage on Indigenous Peoples across Canada.

Chief Woodhouse spoke about the need for First Nations care and control of housing as well as chronic underfunding and neglect of First Nations housing and the resulting challenges in managing COVID-19 outbreaks. I share her concerns about these issues.

This brings me to my first point: Solutions to inadequate housing and homelessness must be grounded in human rights, including the rights of First Nations people.

We know that housing is more than just four walls and roof.

It’s a place to connect to land, community and kin.

And it is a fundamental human right, essential for living in dignity, peace and security.

The right to housing links to countless other fundamental human rights.

Housing is inextricably tied to health and social outcomes. We saw these links to health and home so clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issue of overcrowded housing conditions has been linked to tuberculosis in First Nations communities, and the pandemic further highlighted the serious impacts of over-crowding.

A human rights-based approach requires that we centre people in our measures of success. We cannot only measure success through units built and repaired.

I look forward to discussing the measurement and monitoring of the implementation of the right to adequate housing as it relates to your housing strategy and performance measures on housing.

The human right to housing is not just a slogan. It is a human right defined in international law — and it is now enshrined in Canada’s domestic law, in the National Housing Strategy Act.

The right to adequate housing imposes specific obligations on governments. And part of my role is to hold governments accountable on these human rights obligations.
Under international law, adequate housing means that housing must be:

  • Secure – security of tenure provides protection from arbitrary eviction, forced relocation or harassment;
  • Affordable – housing costs should not be a barrier to meeting other basic needs such as food;
  • Habitable – dwellings should have adequate space for the people who live there and be properly maintained;
  • Provide basic services – including safe drinking water, sanitation, heating, lighting, and emergency services;
  • In a location that is close to employment and basic social services such as childcare, education and healthcare, and is not located in a polluted or dangerous area;
  • Accessible – for people of all abilities; and
  • Culturally appropriate – respects and is appropriate for the expression of the inhabitants’ cultural identity and ways of life.

The human right to housing requires that we mobilize all available resources to help people facing the most disadvantage first, so that everyone can enjoy the right to housing in the shortest possible time.

This includes people experiencing homelessness and those living in inadequate housing.

What is clear to me is that the housing inequalities experienced by First Nations, as well as Métis and Inuit, are violations of the human right to housing that must be addressed as a matter of priority and with respect for the First Nations-Crown relationship.

First Nations must be able to exercise the right to control and manage their own housing. This right to self-determination is in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – or UNDRIP.

The 2021 UNDRIP Act provides a new framework for the federal government to uphold and take action on implementing the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples.

All federal policies and laws, including the National Housing Strategy Act and my work as Federal Housing Advocate, must align with UNDRIP under the new legislation.

I will be continuously seeking to align my work with your distinct priorities, the framework of self-determination, and UNDRIP Articles 21, 23 and 26 related to self-control of housing and the right to own, use, develop and control lands and resources that have been traditionally owned or occupied by First Nations people.

First Nations jurisdiction should be respected despite complicated relationships with provinces, territories and municipalities.

I also recognize that human rights discourse must evolve and be inclusive of the collective rights inherent to Indigenous Peoples. I welcome dialogue with you on this.

Shifting housing policy towards human rights-based approaches can help rectify the growing unacceptable inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

This brings me to my second point: the time for action and change is now. In fact, it is long past due.

First Nations concerns about inadequate housing and homelessness have gone unaddressed for years, and too many First Nations people are living in unacceptable conditions, as Chief Woodhouse pointed out to the House of Commons Committee.

And yet solutions to Indigenous housing issues have been published in countless reports, audits, and recommendations.

The lack of government action and progress on addressing these issues is shameful.

The federal government has clear fiduciary and human rights obligations to First Nations. It must act now to uphold the right to housing for First Nations.

I am pleased to hear that the National First Nations Housing and Related Infrastructure Strategy is underway and was approved by Chiefs. This is a positive step towards a new, transformative federal-First Nations housing policy.

One of my responsibilities as Federal Housing Advocate is to monitor how well Canada is doing on its human rights obligations related to adequate housing.

In my Office's early discussions with the AFN and in combination with report recommendations, my understanding is that some key concerns have highlighted the need for:

  • better federal government understanding and acceptance of its obligations and mechanisms of protection of First Nations’ right to adequate housing, such as Treaties, fiduciary, right to self-government, UNDRIP, and others,
  • First Nations control and management over housing and the maximization of housing improvements in First Nations communities that cannot or will not opt for transition to control in the short or medium term,
  • solutions to First Nations homelessness,
  • long term predictable funding that is responsive to diverse community needs,
  • improved critical services, such as clean drinking water,
  • improved access to safe housing for women and girls across the housing spectrum,
  • improved government coordination and transparency, and
  • improved data collection that respects First Nations data sovereignty and takes a Grandmother perspective as defined by Gwen Philips of the Ktunaxa (tu-na-ha) Nation, where data is collected for the benefit of the community.

It is my job to hold the government accountable on these issues, on other housing issues that First Nations bring to my attention, and on where it needs to do better.

That is why I want to understand the current status of your priority housing recommendations and the level of progress to date.

The pandemic has shown us that resources can be mobilized if there is political will to do so.

Off-community, there were increased rent supports, temporary protection for renters, and supports for First Nations experiencing homelessness in and away from their communities.

We know that governments can take action.

We need to build on the learnings from the pandemic and continue to prioritize the right to housing and eliminating homelessness.

We must work together to ensure that we make progress and do not slide backwards.

When I took on this role, it was with the sincere belief that it will offer another avenue for advocacy and accountability on the human right to housing.

And as I mentioned at the beginning, pushing for action on Indigenous housing is an immediate and urgent priority for me.

This brings me to my third and final point: change is going to take all of us.

I welcome a relationship with you to advance your priorities.

I am deeply committed to a direct relationship with First Nations leaders and communities as the capacity of my Office allows.

I will need to understand your unique issues while also working closely with the Assembly of First Nations to advocate for common issues that you collectively identify.

This includes upholding the right to self-determination and principles of human dignity and respect.

I want to take some time to explain the priorities I will address in my role as well as the tools at my disposal, and how we can harness these to move forward together.

The Federal Housing Advocate role is an important access to justice mechanism established under the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act. As I mentioned at the beginning, my role is independent and nonpartisan.

The work ahead for myself and my Office will be to:

  • engage directly with political leaders and regionally over time as capacity allows. We are an office of 11 people so we will need to be very focused with our engagement,
  • receive submissions from the public and organizations about systemic housing issues,
  • conduct research and studies of systemic housing issues,
  • conduct Advocate-led reviews of systemic housing issues or refer these matter to the National Housing Council. The Council will establish a review panel to examine the issue more closely and make recommendations, and
  • monitor the implementation of the right to housing and also the goals, timelines and outcomes of the National Housing Strategy.

Each year, I will submit an annual report to the Minister responsible for housing which must be tabled in Parliament. It will include my recommendations based on our engagements, research, systemic reviews and monitoring work.

As I move forward in this role, I see a huge opportunity to push for action on your priorities, using all of these tools as my disposal.

I also see a huge opportunity for First Nations leadership on housing and homelessness policies in Canada.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, First Nations leadership, First Nations approaches and First Nations voices are critical to reimagining housing policy in Canada.

In addition to the National First Nations Housing and Related Infrastructure Strategy, I understand that a First Nations Homelessness Strategy is being developed by the AFN. I look forward to learning more about it today and when we meet.

I am aware that there is work underway to develop a new Northern, Urban, and Rural strategy and that there are complexities in understanding the place of First Nations leadership alongside the realities of diverse self-government communities and housing providers.

I look forward to learning more from all parties and what role I can play in advancing this important work.

Off-community, we hear a lot about the need for increased housing supply, but the federal government must consider who is benefiting from this supply and whether it is truly affordable for those who need it most.

More action is required to ensure that existing affordable housing is protected off-community and that truly affordable housing is built and protected in perpetuity for low-income people, including for First Nations people with disabilities, Elders, survivors of abuse, those with disabilities related to mental health and addictions, young adults, and others.

The housing needs of women, two-spirit and gender diverse people in all of these groups should be addressed through a gender-based lens.

On reserve, settlement lands, and lands set aside, more needs to be done to address the lack of financial opportunities such as access to mortgages and loans for First Nations people as the 2017 Policy Reform Framework for the Housing and Infrastructure Framework noted.

I support the need for community members to have equal access to financial opportunities as those living off-community and I look forward to learning more on this.

People require and deserve adequate, stable housing where they can build their lives, work and share in community.

This is the beginning of my journey as the first Federal Housing Advocate. I recognize with respect that this virtual room is filled with advocates who have tirelessly worked to advance change within colonial systems that have been violent, blunt and harmful.

While there is a long way to go to implement meaningful systemic change and full implementation of the human right to adequate housing, I am pleased that the federal government enshrined the right into Canadian law and that new accountability mechanisms are now present, including this role I hold.

I invite community leaders to work within your organizations to make submissions to the Office about the systemic housing issues you are experiencing.

We also expect to learn about issues and potential solutions through my engagement in communities.

Advancing the human right to adequate housing and making change will take all of us, working together.

I look forward to working with the Assembly of First Nations and activating my duties to advance the human right to adequate housing for First Nations and all Indigenous Peoples.

And I look forward to working together to build a new vision for housing in Canada – one that is centered around the importance of culture, land, family and community. One that is for a social good and for environmental sustainability. One that sees housing as a human right.

We can only do this with First Nations leadership, First Nations approaches, and First Nations voices.

Miigwetch. Thank you.

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