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Column: Building success by building houses

A year after the pictures were broadcast across Canada and the world, the images of deplorable housing conditions in Attawapiskat are still shocking.

A year after the pictures were broadcast across Canada and the world, the images of deplorable housing conditions in Attawapiskat are still shocking.

Pictures of multi-generational families living in makeshift tents and shacks lacking heat and plumbing in sub-Arctic conditions put tiny Attawapiskat in northern Ontario on the map and earned it the depressingly descriptive moniker “Haiti at minus 40.”

And it is still in the spotlight. On Dec. 11, Attawapiskat’s Chief Theresa Spence launched a hunger strike, vowing during a press conference on Parliament Hill that she would not eat until the federal government begins showing more respect for First Nations’ concerns and treaty rights.

“I am willing to die for my people,” she said before heading to a cabin on Victoria Island in Ontario to begin her strike. The housing crisis on her reserve and many others, meanwhile, is far from solved.

It would be easy to view the question of adequate housing on remote reserves as something that will never be fixed. But what if this tough puzzle could be a symbol of possibility instead of the failure as it has become?

Housing as a creator of jobs, a source of income and training and a base for innovation and hope would be a game changer in the North and on reserves across Canada. And why not? It is a chronic problem in need of a solution, and those living with the challenges are in the best position to help find one and to benefit from it. Rather than a burden, housing could be a launching pad for a new future.

If that sounds overly optimistic — and it might be — there are small, but encouraging reasons to believe it is possible.

There are projects taking shape around the country that offer hope that better housing could be a route to a better future. Some are described in a report tabled by the Conference Board of Canada, which outlines the difficulties of providing adequate housing in the North — and there are many — but it also highlights success stories.

One involves a collaboration between the Assembly of First Nations and Mike Holmes, the television renovation guy who became involved after Holmes and AFN Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo met at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Another is smart, Arctic-weather friendly, easy to erect housing designed by an Ottawa-based company.

The collaboration with Holmes involved inviting First Nations across Ontario to submit proposals for “innovative and sustainable” housing. The pilot project, which calls for energy-efficient, durable and sustainable housing, will be built by Atika-meksheng Anishnawbek (formerly Whitefish Lake) north of Sudbury.

The program addresses a big problem in First Nations housing, that it is usually outsourced — “that builders construct something on-site or off-site, complete the work and then leave. So there is no continuing economic development or base … and doesn’t help them create a foundation from which they can build,” says the report.

The project aims to change that. It calls for housing made of materials that will not burn or produce mould — an ongoing problem in First Nations housing — and construction of housing that is energy efficient. There is also a program at Sault College in northern Ontario to help develop trade skills for people living on reserves. And there are plans to take what is learned and expand it.

Holmes, who has a record of fixing housing problems, is blunt about the housing situation on reserves. “We need to stop building crap. It’s as simple as that,” he told CBC News.

“The smartest thing we can do is to teach the First Nations how to do it,” says Holmes. “When they do it themselves, they have pride and they care, and that’s what I think is the missing link, not to mention just using the wrong products and building foolishly.”

The Conference Board report underscores the importance of bringing the private sector in to help. “Supporting a process that encourages private-sector innovation ultimately frees up the public sector to focus on managing its complex regulatory environment to facilitate the growth of a housing industry,” through zoning and other means, says the report.

Kott North, an Ottawa-based company, won the bid for a multimillion-dollar housing development in Nunavut that is quick to build and suitable for the harsh weather. The housing can be quickly built with local workers who have been trained to do the work.

Housing, it is becoming clear, is a key to everything from health to economic well-being in First Nations communities and in the North.

While Attawapiskat’s Spence protests the difficult high-level relationship between the federal government and First Nations, there are encouraging signs that important change might be coming from the ground up.