Habitat for Humanity breaks ground on homes in two Ontario First Nations

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Chief Gregory Nadjiwon was paying close attention as Habitat for Humanity broke ground on a house at the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.

It marked the first time the charitable organization was building a home on a First Nations reserve in Ontario and Nadjiwon and his band council want the project to work, not just because it’s important to their reserve, but because of the implications it could have for other Indigenous communities across Canada.

“I’m looking forward to it because it’s just another way we can address the Indigenous housing shortage,” Nadjiwon said of the project that began construction July 21.

“The more bridge building and partnering we can do with initiatives that can assist with First Nations housing, we’re all for. It’s called thinking outside the box.”

The project is one of 40 that Habitat for Humanity is currently undertaking through its Indigenous Housing Program.

Two more houses began construction at Curve Lake First Nation, north of Peterborough, Ont., on Friday afternoon, with Nadjiwon and other community leaders hopeful the efforts lead to improved conditions.

The idea for the housing project for the Chippewas of the Nawash Unceded First Nation, an Ojibwe community 60 kilometres north of Owen Sound, Ont., came in 2015 when Donna Akiwenzie’s home was condemned and torn down.

The widow, who has since been living with members of the community, serves as the primary caregiver for her granddaughter and needed help to find a new home while her son worked out of province.

A former band council member reached out to the Grey-Bruce region Habitat for Humanity and invited them to tour the reserve. The charity then entered negotiations with Nadjiwon and his council before signing a memorandum of understanding.

“We want to make this a very successful venture. A lot will depend on the success of this first pilot project,” said Nadjiwon. “We’ve been reading between the lines, the more successful the project, the more likely it is we’ll have another build.”

Housing for Indigenous people is a complicated issue because of the diverse range of First Nations experiences. Building a house on a reserve presents different challenges than providing housing in an urban centre. A fly-in reserve has more logistical hurdles than one like Nawash that is relatively close to a city.

Habitat for Humanity estimates it costs twice as much to build a new home in a remote community because of shipping costs, more expensive materials and difficulty finding donations, volunteers and tradespeople.

The charity began its Indigenous Housing Program a decade ago but it has picked up steam it in the past two years, with houses being built at Tobique First Nation outside of Fredericton, and Gift Lake Métis Settlement in northern Alberta, in addition to the projects at Nawash, Curve Lake.

“When you look at what we’re doing relative to the need and the backlog, it’s small,” said Peter De Barros, vice-president of government relations for Habitat for Humanity. “That’s why we need investments from the government to help ramp up what we’re doing. We know the program is successful.

“If you’re going to start to deal with the backlog of Indigenous housing and poor housing conditions, you have to start somewhere.”

Habitat for Humanity has created an advisory board with representatives from the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The goal is to collaborate with First Nations communities and have them determine their needs and then try and meet them.

Part of that is holding workshops in Indigenous communities that teach building and maintenance skills to create self-sufficiency in remote reserves.

Habitat for Humanity also built an elders lodge at Flying Dust First Nation near Meadow Lake, Sask., and is planning to retrofit 10 houses in Pikangikum First Nation, about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., with running water and sanitation because that was the community’s most pressing housing need.

Nadjiwon said he’s impressed with Habitat for Humanity’s efforts with the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation so far.

“I would definitely give it a high grade,” said Nadjiwon. “They’re very thorough. They’re represented by designers, by their funders, they’re very well organized.”