03/12/2019 09:26 EDT | Updated 03/12/2019 11:10 EDT

Canada's Indigenous Housing Strategy Fails To Address Urban Populations

The majority of Indigenous housing interests is missing in the government's response to the housing crisis in Canada.

A homeless person tries to stay warm by an underground exhaust vent while trying to collect change from a passing pedestrian on Bay Street in Toronto on Jan. 19, 2019.

By SM Leduc and Marc Maracle

The last several years have been trumpeted as a period of reflection and transformation by the Government of Canada in its relationship with Indigenous Peoples. In 2016 the government officially removed its objector status to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a year later released their 10 Principles respecting the Government of Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples, with aspirational declarations such as, "Reconciliation is a fundamental purpose of section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982."

Sounds significant. But what exactly does the Government of Canada mean in its intention toward reconciliation?

The nod to reconciliation pops up repeatedly in nearly every federal press release or briefing on Indigenous issues. The mantra, however, holds little by way of providing measurable indicators for policy transformation. Without substance, the government's commitment to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples risks becoming largely a paper exercise, frustrated to no end as it obscures the potential for concrete progress and reduces reconciliation to political point-scoring.

Reconciliation is about parties coming together, fostering a respectful understanding and finding a mutually accommodating way forward. Take Indigenous housing for example. The Government of Canada is currently engaged with the three national organizations for First Nations, Inuit and Métis to develop housing strategies for their respective constituencies. However, the overwhelming majority of Indigenous Peoples in Canada do not reside on a reserve, in an Inuit community or Metis settlement. They are in urban cities and towns, rural communities and more widely in northern areas. This majority of Indigenous housing interests is missing in the government's response to the housing crisis in Canada.

Watch: More than half of Canada's Indigenous population lives in cities. Blog continues below.

Census 2016 data on the housing conditions of Indigenous Peoples indicates 18.3 per cent live in core housing need — meaning that they spend over 30 per cent of their income on housing — compared to 12.4 per cent for non-Indigenous households. Multiple studies highlight that Indigenous Peoples make up a disproportionate amount of Canada's homeless population, with one in 15 Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in urban areas, compared to one in 128 for the general population. In some rural and northern areas, 70, 80 or even 90 per cent of all homeless families and individuals are Indigenous.

The right stakeholders need to be at the table. Consistently overlooked is the demographic reality in Canada is that most Indigenous families and individuals live in the urban and rural areas of Canada — 62 per cent live in metropolitan and urban centers and another 25 per cent live in small towns, rural, remote and northern areas, a total of 87 per cent.

And this number is continuing to increase.

Given the acute conditions faced by Indigenous Canadians in housing and homelessness, as well as the federal government's commitment to improving the standard of living for Indigenous Peoples, the government has a real opportunity to bring together evidence-informed policy making and reconciliation

But the government must also be mindful in how it undertakes major policy shifts. There is a specific kind of hypocrisy when government overpromises but continues to underdeliver, which serves nothing more than to damage an already fraught relationship.

In the emerging political momentum on tackling the Indigenous housing crisis and homelessness, urban and rural Indigenous stakeholders cannot be an afterthought in the process.

More than a year after the release of the $40 billion federal National Housing Strategy, the government announced a $638 million carve out, spread over nine years, for urban Indigenous housing. None of this is new monies and the government does not have a clear answer on how, when, or where the money will be spent. Indeed, a significant portion of this money will go to provinces and territories as part of bilateral agreements, which largely offloads the issue to a different level of government and sidelines the participation of urban and rural Indigenous stakeholders and experts in the very policies that affect them.

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Housing forms the foundation for vibrant Indigenous communities and remains a positive determinant of health and mental wellbeing, education, early child development, and employment, and reduces the instances of criminal recidivism, substance abuse, and homelessness. A robust urban and rural national Indigenous Housing Strategy should include recognition of the growing need for culturally connected and adequate housing for Indigenous Peoples living in urban and rural settings, with a view of housing as an integral part of the reconciliation process.

The eventual unveiling of the Indigenous housing strategies will undoubtedly be touted as a positive step toward reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. But the strategies will be ineffective, and the reconciliation process half-hearted, if the federal government neglects to include the experience and reality faced by urban, rural, and northern Indigenous Peoples.

SM Leduc is Manager of Policy and Research at the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA). Marc Maracle is Executive Director of Gignul Non-Profit Housing Corporation. Both sit on CHRA's Indigenous Housing Caucus Working Group.

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