There is a saying about home ownership that reads: “To every bird, its own nest is beautiful.”
What that speaks to is the sense of pride an individual has and displays in the entire process of owning a home.
While many in urban centers take home ownership for granted, or even as a rite of passage, for many living on reserves or in small communities, it is a foreign concept. Some may even view it as a right, and are often surprised when confronted with the reality that it isn’t.
While the provision of GNWT public housing has solved some issues, larger issues with respect to inappropriate design, lack of affordability, poor quality, and expensive heating remain.
In general, Dene are still not benefitting from current programs and often, are not the beneficiaries of modern housing and construction trends that take advantage of new technologies, materials and building techniques.
At a recent Dene Indigenous Housing strategy session about creating home ownership options for Dene, an approach was developed to “restore pride and control back to Dene families.” An initiative being taken on by leaders in all five regions in the NWT seeks to redress the problem, one success story at a time. But there are many challenges to overcome.
First, is a general perception among community people that the house designs offered by the government are inappropriate for our climate and lifestyles.
The designs often do not take the needs of disabled people into consideration. Add to those considerations, the cost of transporting building materials to remote communities, and lack of an infrastructure to support the growing number of housing units required, and you get a sense of the size of these challenges.
Finding and affording qualified construction crews is also a burden most Northern families cannot bear. But, despite all of this, opportunity exists.
Designs families really want
Considering that land costs are low or even non-existent, the initiative seeks to work with Dene families to access the housing designs they really want, and not simply one that is imposed upon them.
Organizations like the Arctic Energy Alliance will be able to help communities fund materials and provide advice on building energy-efficient homes less reliant upon the current grids of existing power grids.
Any new construction projects would access local labour pools and building materials, especially if that community has a sawmill.
Second, is the expense of building a home. Considering most community people cannot qualify for a conventional mortgage, as people living in larger centers like Yellowknife or Hay River can, it is necessary to come up with creative financing solutions. As mentioned at the meeting, banks also do not take into account the seasonal or temporary employment activities of the Dene people. Furthermore, not everyone in the communities is financially-literate.
Offsetting construction and mortgage costs
So among the solutions proposed was the creation of a “Dene-loan fund” to serve all 33 communities. This fund would lend a small one-time amount (say, $10,000) to Dene families to offset construction or even mortgage costs. As the money is paid back, future money would be lent to another Dene family. In other areas of Canada, similar funding arrangements in Indigenous communities have been very successful. The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in Ontario have successfully operated a home ownership revolving loan fund since 1970.
We can build, we have the blueprint, yet we are at the mercy of policies that need a major overhaul.
Finally, being able to tap into a pool of qualified journeymen and labour is often a challenge in the communities. Not only is it expensive to bring in tradespeople into the communities, but also project managers. So an opportunity exists to be able to train youth and unemployed members in the appropriate trades within the communities.
So as stated at the meeting, the pilot initiative will “build partnerships and overcome barriers by using the collective wisdom and power of the Dene Nation.”
Now, comes the hard work: identifying the first community to benefit from this new approach to solving a long-standing issue in the Northwest Territories. Leaders are now developing a work-plan that includes collaboration between the communities and helping communities take an inventory of their current opportunities and resources.
It is hoped that by addressing the housing issues, we will also be able to address the issues associated with poverty, family violence and financial stress.