A northern community.

Indigenous Housing: Towards a model supporting community health

Housing issues in Canada’s Indigenous communities have been well documented for decades without any positive changes.

By: Dr. Shelagh McCartney, Jeffrey Herskovits & Kathryn Trnavsky

HOUSING ISSUES in Canada’s Indigenous communities have been well documented for decades without any positive changes. As populations grow rapidly, housing demand continues to increase and the existing shortfall becomes exacerbated. Housing need creates not only a lack of suitable shelter but a community health crisis. The physical strain on built infrastructure from overcrowding, poor quality of construction and prevalence of mould growth cause physical harm while the inappropriateness of design and social stress put on community members and youth alike contribute to problems of substance abuse, hopelessness and suicide. Building the required number of shelter units may reduce some of these effects, but it’s only through a complete reconceptualization of the system that housing can become a catalyst to improving community health.

A change in housing outcomes can only come as a result of changing housing processes. 

The existing on-reserve federal housing policy created in 1996 aimed to increase local control and provide flexibility to community leaders, recognizing the differences across Canada’s Indigenous communities. However, these were largely token changes, transfers in power were not accompanied by the required investments or commitments to capacity building. Instead, this policy attempts to displace responsibility from a negligent government repeating the colonial tactic of under-resourcing communities, entrenching a sense of crisis and dependency. Housing systems continue to be tangled in a complicated web of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Policy and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada departmental requirements, creating more reporting and program management problems than housing solutions.  A true alteration of power in the housing system would see a narrative shift from meeting federal requirements to meeting local needs.

A change in housing outcomes can only come as a result of changing housing processes. Housing must be understood as part of a network of community assets, culturally relevant and a critical solution to local needs. Catch-all federal policies, focused on the cause-de-jour, recently mould growth and its resulting ill-health, disguise a symptom of inadequate and inappropriate houses as the totality of the problem. Focus instead must be placed on local values, traditions and ways of knowing. Rejecting a conversation about creating higher and stricter national standards in favour of one which centres on usefulness and practicality of solutions in meeting local needs. Planners and designers need to partner with local populations not imposing solutions to problems of their own making, but instead with an understanding of their historical complicity in the creation of the housing crisis and a willingness to listen, value and engage with local solutions.

Our own work at +city lab looks to begin this conversation in one remote First Nations community in Northern Ontario. The project Visioning Our Future Dwelling Together provides space for community members to reimagine and rethink housing, in a completely community-led process. Discussions of issues and solutions are driven by community members, as we try to gain an understanding of and record problems with the current system while focusing on solutions. Solutions are derived from a series of interactive and creative explorations of preferences focused both inside the home and at the community level between homes. As well, sharing is encouraged between community members, creating inter-generational understandings and looking to develop consensus and understanding of community values.

Importantly, these solutions are community specific requiring a move away from national-level implementation and forcing the relevant disciplines to concentrate on the local. While much of this work in determining community preferences can be left to the market in urban municipalities, reserves existing on crown land remove this potential. Instead, preferences must be determined through better practice, a practice which begins by recognizing the historical role of housing as a tool of assimilation and commits to actions of reconciliation in creating improved community health outcomes.

Similarly the narrative must be moved away from a simple short-sighted cost effectiveness towards one which values health and success. It can no longer be sufficient to create shelter units for Canada’s Indigenous people which trap them in a cycle of social inequities and continued reliance on the federal government. Instead, planners and designers must recognize the social impact of their work recognizing as many Indigenous people already have the role of housing in a variety of health outcomes, including the epidemic of youth suicides. Through listening, and valuing Indigenous knowledge, and importantly making it actionable within the housing system disciplines can play an active role improving community health. 

Dr. Shelagh McCartney is an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. 

+city lab is committed to experimental research and practice at the intersections of architecture, landscape and planning. Visioning Our Future Dwelling Together looks to create a model of partnership, focused on community-derived solutions and amplifying and injecting the voice of Indigenous people into the planning process. For more information please visit