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Housing issue muddied by neglect

The mess and uncleanliness on some reserves is often observed -- but seldom discussed

The rusted hulk of an abandoned vehicle rests against the pitbull pen, garbage blows across the front yard, catching on piles of broken bicycles, and children play under a flight of rotting stairs.

The state of homes on First Nations reserves in Canada is the elephant in the room, rarely openly discussed, but familiar to anyone driving through reserves on southern Vancouver Island.

While there are serious problems affecting the homes, the issues are sometimes muddied by the visuals that accompany them: neglect, mess and uncleanliness. Visits by Times Colonist journalists to Island reserves revealed many homes that were poorly constructed and filled with toxic mould, but a number of the same homes were strewn with garbage or in various stages of disrepair.

That reality leaves many non-natives asking: "Why should taxpayers fund more houses for reserves, if their occupants can't, or won't, take care of the existing ones?"

The issue is steeped in cultural differences and mired in the history of relations between First Nations and white settlers.

First Nations leaders say the core of the problem is the reserve system that uprooted thousands of people and put them into a type of housing that had little to do with their history. Traditionally, B.C. native bands did not live in one place with one family to a house. Instead, they moved from summer camps to winter camps, living mainly as extended families in longhouses.

"There was an intense social engineering effort to get First Nations into

single-family housing" after the Second World War, said Laurie Meijer-Drees, Vancouver Island University instructor in First Nations studies.

Placed on reserves, they were expected to move into the equivalent of a bungalow in a middle-class neighbourhood, a situation that was completely foreign to them, said John Richards, professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University.

In addition, thousands of children were sent to residential schools for years, further disrupting social relationships. "Then there are problems of social dysfunction because of loss of traditional activities, unemployment and depression," Richards said.

Robert Morales is a lawyer and chief negotiator for the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group, a coalition of six Coast Salish bands on Vancouver Island. He says bands are dealing with a history of negative government policies and discrimination. "You can start with the policy of assimilation -- that we are going to root out the Indian in the children, taking them out of their environment and telling them their languages, family and culture is evil," Morales said.

"You do that to people and you can't just say 'get over it.' It's like telling Jews to get over the Holocaust."

Paternalistic policies have developed a culture of dependency, leaders say. Many tenants believe government should automatically provide a new home if their existing home disintegrates, even if the disintegration is a result of neglect, said Jim Munroe, technical services manager for the Carrier Chilcotin Tribal Council and technical representative for the Assembly of First Nations committee on housing and infrastructure. Part of the solution is education, he said. People have to realize that even if a home wears out, it still has to be paid for.

Another recurring theme is poverty. Statistics Canada figures from 2005 show the average employment income for those who identify themselves as North American Indians is $25,961 compared with $36,616 for non-aboriginals. Before tax, the number of families in the low-income bracket among North American Indians is 32.3 per cent, compared with 11.6 per cent of non-aboriginals.

Statistics compiled by the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group show that in 2005 the median income was $9,254. In that year, the low-income cutoff for a single person in a rural area was $14,000, leaving 65 per cent of those on-reserve living below the poverty line.

John Lutz, a University of Victoria history professor, is the author of a new book, Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. Lutz said reserves have higher poverty rates than the Canadian average and more people with addiction problems. "You are not seeing how aboriginal people live. You are seeing how poor people live," Lutz said. "You see it in ghettoes everywhere."

Pride of ownership -- or lack thereof -- is also a factor. All reserve land is owned by the government of Canada, and while some band members do own their homes, many are owned by the band itself and rented to members. Neighbourhoods that have less-affluent residents in rental housing tend to be more rundown, whether they're on reserves or elsewhere, and reserves with a higher percentage of home ownership, such as the Hupacasath in Port Alberni, tend to be cleaner and better-kept.

First Nations bands say they lack the funding to police the state of homes and yards and organize garbage pickup. "We have looked at implementing bylaws, but we don't have any resources to hire enforcement officers or implement fines," said Karen Harry, band administrator of the Tsartlip First Nation.

Cultural differences also affect non-native perceptions of reserve housing. First Nations prefer a natural look to manicured lawns, said Sylvia Olsen, a member of the First Nations National Housing Managers Association.

"I know people suck their teeth and wonder why it doesn't look like Oak Bay, but I can't figure out why Oak Bay looks like it does," she said.

The idea of a yard with a fence is purely European, Lutz said: "It is something we brought with us, and aboriginal people had their own esthetic of living."

However, Joseph Merrick, a Vancouver Island man of mixed race, blames chiefs and councils for not being tougher. Municipalities move in and clean up properties at the homeowner's expense, so why does that not happen on reserves? he asked.

"I am ashamed sometimes when I see the piles of garbage. It feeds racism," said Merrick, who has lived on a mainland reserve and visits relatives on Island reserves. "I think our leaders are afraid to do anything."


YESTERDAY: The sorry state of First Nations housing on reserves across B.C. and Canada is hardly a secret. Governments, consultants and chiefs agree it's a national disgrace, yet the crisis persists.

TODAY: The elephant in the living room -- how serious issues are overshadowed by the visuals that accompany them: neglect, mess and uncleanliness.

TUESDAY: How poor designs, shoddy construction, and lax oversight created reserves full of of rotting, mould-infested homes.

WEDNESDAY: Aboriginal people pay a high price for poor housing -- their health.

THURSDAY: The crisis isn't limited to reserves -- First Nations account for one in three homeless people in B.C.

FRIDAY: How three bands are changing the tide by bankrolling their own projects, requiring more accountability and relying on solid leadership.

SATURDAY: What needs to be done -- two First Nations chiefs and two politicians offer their prescription for the future.

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