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Welcome Home? Law & Living Conditions Impact First Nations’ Health

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

What is a home? Our sanctuary, our place of refuge. Hopefully, somewhere we know we are emotionally and physically safe. Somewhere we know our bodies will be free from disease-causing bacteria. Simply put: at the very least, our home should not cause us health issues. While that might seem like a given, for many it is something they are still fighting for. Many Indigenous peoples suffer from higher levels of tuberculosis, bronchitis and influenza[1] which is directly connected to the poor quality of their housing.[2]

This isn’t news for First Nations leaders. According to Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Derek Fox, “our leaders have been saying for years - that deplorable housing is directly linked to the poor health of so many of our people.”[3]

Poor health is directly connected to poor housing. Unfortunately, it is also directly connected to colonialism.

“Deplorable housing”

A home with deplorable living conditions often has damaged windows, water penetration in exterior walls, and inadequate ventilation. These issues arise due to the use of poor quality building materials, lack of enforceable building codes, overcrowding, and insufficient funds to maintain housing.[4] When you couple these issues together, the home mimics the conditions inside a plastic bag and becomes a breeding ground for mould.[5] This results in the quicker deterioration of housing than housing found off-reserve.

An estimated 37% of housing on reserve are in need of major repairs.[6]

The role of colonialism

Non-Indigenous communities rectify these issues by completing necessary repairs, so why isn’t this happening in Indigneous communities? The short answer: funding and resource scarcity that is directly tied to colonialism.

First Nations communities have been subjected to “centuries of assimilation tactics, colonialism, and systemic racism” that have been significant factors in creating these deplorable housing conditions.[7] These barriers derive in large part from the Indian Act and its implementation. This Act took away the autonomy of First Nations leaders to make decisions for members of the First Nations, including restrictions on movement, business development and decisions of where funding should be allocated.[8] The Indian Act also prohibits the use of reserve property as collateral, which makes securing a mortgage unattainable.[9] Even if a loan were attainable, there is a severe shortage of serviceable lots meaning it is unduly difficult to develop necessary infrastructure such as roads, water, and sewer services.[10]

Additionally, systemic and “structural barriers including employment, education, economic and housing inadequacies”, have created barriers for First Nations communities to build, maintain and repair their own housing.[11]

How can First Nations communities improve their living conditions?

Two words: self governance.[12] Restoring self-governance to First Nations communities would grant them autonomy over the maintenance and repairs required for on reserve housing. Clearly, underfunded and highly restrictive colonial governance is not working.[13]

Unsafe and unhealthy housing is inhumane. Blocking First Nations communities from attaining self-governance and autonomy over housing concerns is perpetuating intergenerational harms. A change is needed. Welcoming home a new governance regime - a self governance regime equitably funded alongside other governments - would be a significant step to many more truly welcoming houses, and homes.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION YEG

[1] The Health of Canada’s Children and Youth: A CICH Profile, First Nations Housing in Reserves, online:

[2] Paul C Webster, “Housing Triggers Health Problems for Canada’s First Nations” (February 7, 2015) 385:9967 The Lancet, World Report, at 495-496 (,has%20yet%20to%20act.%20Paul%20C%20Webster%20reports.)

[3] Ryan Forbes, “First Nation Housing Linked to Respiratory Illness, Hospitalizations” (February 1, 2022), online: Kenora Online <>.

[4] The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples - On-Reserve Housing and Infrastructure: Recommendations for Change (February 2015) (Chair: The Honourable Dennis Patterson), online: <>

[5] Ryan Forbes (Ibid).

[6] Supra note 4.

[7] Ryan Forbes (Ibid).

[8] Bob Joseph, 21 Things you may not know about the Indian Act, (Port Coquitlam: Indigenous Relations Press, 2018) at 15-19.

[9] Supra note 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ryan Forbes (Ibid).

[12] Self governance in the context of Indigenous communities, is the “formal structure through which Indigneous communities may control the administration of their people, land, resources and related programs and policies, through agreements with federal and provincial governments.” See: William B. Henderson, “Indigenous Self-Government in Canada” (February 7, 2006), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia: Indigenous Self Government in Canada <>.

[13] Katie Hyslop, “How to fix the First Nation housing crisis: next government could take a major step by handing control of housing back to First Nations with proper funding, say leaders” (October 18, 2019), online: The Tyee <>.

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