Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First Nation co-signs away housing issue

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The Whitefish River Ojibway First Nation southwest of Sudbury, Ont., has solved what used to be a severe shortage of housing for their citizens.

And it doesn't involve government money.

Just 10 years ago, Whitefish River had the same shortage of housing many other First Nations currently face. Every meeting of the band council was tied up by somebody who needed a house or whose house needed fixing.

Housing, however, hasn't been on the agenda for a long time at any Whitefish River meetings because they came up with a plan that works.

And it is so simple it makes us all look sad.

The people of Whitefish River recognized they would never receive enough "housing money" from the federal government to meet the needs of all of their residents despite the fact they believed they were entitled to free housing under their treaty agreements.

So they looked at how most other Canadians get a house. You know, borrow the money from a bank in the form of a mortgage, and after 20 to 25 years of paying interest and principle, you eventually own that house.

But most First Nations citizens don't make enough money to qualify for a mortgage (or they don't have the right credit rating). However, if you can provide a guarantee to the bank that its money will be repaid somehow, anyhow, with interest, then that bank will provide the mortgage.

Bottom line is that everyone living in Whitefish River, whether they are living on social assistance or holding down a job, has an income.

If you can guarantee the bank a certain amount of that income would be deducted from the paycheque or welfare cheque an individual or family receives, a bank should be willing to provide a mortgage to finance the construction of a suitable house designed in line with your income.

And if you provide a guarantee the mortgage will be repaid in case anything goes wrong, the bank would be violating its operating and business principles if it didn't provide the mortgage. It's the basic co-signer arrangement

Every First Nation in Canada generates a sizable amount of money in annual revenue that is guaranteed by treaty as "Indian monies" (or their share of revenues accrued from the development of agriculture, mining, forestry and other economic development that took place on the land First Nations agreed to share by moving onto reserves).

A community the size of Attawapiskat receives about $17 million a year to pay for education, health care, infrastructure and the many other expenses a community of 3,000 incurs. Whether that is too much or too little is not the debate here, there is enough cash on hand to provide guarantees a bank can live with to guarantee enough mortgages over a reasonable amount of time to resolve the present housing crisis.

So the Whitefish River First Nation used its annual revenues to guarantee mortgages that would provide the cash needed to build the housing its residents needed.

In addition to solving the housing crisis, community members began to take greater pride in the place where they lived because they owned their own homes. Less windows got broken and if they did, they were quickly repaired. Likewise toilets and tiles.

The Whitefish River Band even went so far as to create a construction company that employed local workers to build all the new homes. So the individual who was borrowing the money to build a home was given a job building that home. And training that allowed him or her to work on building other homes for other community members.

Since 2005, Whitefish River First Nation has built 50 homes without even touching its federal housing allotment. New land has been set aside for a new subdivision and emergency housing that used to exist is gone.

Yes, there have been some hiccups. The band has had to evict some people when they failed to live up to their financial agreements. Sometimes it is difficult for some families to keep up with their mortgage payment (don't we all) but they are careful to make the budget as realistic and feasible as can be going in.

The housing in Whitefish River is no longer a place in which to survive. The people live in homes they put their spirit into and they take pride in.

Housing doesn't dominate the agenda at meetings in Whitefish River anymore.

Economic development, health care, education and community infrastructure dominate the discussions now.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2012 A11

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