OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is accused of mostly sidestepping the housing gap faced by Indigenous communities in its budget.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is accused of mostly sidestepping the housing gap faced by Indigenous communities in its budget.

Indigenous leaders had hoped for a foundational change in how Ottawa funds housing in remote communities, after two years of COVID-19 outbreaks that overcrowded housing have disproportionately spread, resulting in a higher death rate.

Thursday’s budget allocated a $4-billion increase for housing on reserves over seven years, and $300 million for an Indigenous urban housing strategy, which was promised five years ago.

Both commitments are much lower than what bureaucrats, chiefs and advocates have said is needed to address severe overcrowding on reserves and in communities such as the North End of Winnipeg, where many Indigenous people live.

The Assembly of First Nations has pushed for $44 billion over 10 years to address overcrowding, with an additional $16 billion (annually) to account for the growing population.

The National Housing Council called last week for at least $6.3 billion over two years for Indigenous people living off reserve.

Thursday’s pledge instead amounts to an annual average of $571 million over seven years.

Two weeks ago, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu told media Indigenous housing was in a “state of crisis” and that she had made “an ambitious ask” of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.

On Thursday, Freeland noted the $4 billion for Indigenous housing comes in addition to $10 billion in general housing pledges.

“If you judge a government’s priorities by where the money is going, that is a meaningful commitment,” she said.

“It’s a commitment that stacks up very, very well against the overall housing commitment.”

Freeland pointed out that reconciliation funding is the second-largest category of spending in the budget, after the economic growth strategy. That includes compensation for Indigenous foster care, and renewed funding to search residential-school burial sites.

Still, the money falls short of what the Liberals have promised.

In mandate letters issued last December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed ministers to get $2 billion in new Indigenous housing built soon, tasking them with making “over half of the funding available by the upcoming summer construction period.”

Yet Thursday’s budget suggests just $652 million will be spent by March 2023. In February, a handful of construction firms told the Free Press they were not aware of a boom in construction contracts on reserves.

In a January 2015 document obtained by The Canadian Press, the federal government estimated in Manitoba alone, it would cost $1.9 billion to address overcrowding and mould problems in homes on First Nations.

Many reserves have dilapidated, modular housing that hasn’t kept pace with growing populations, in part because the federal Indian Act makes it near impossible to obtain mortgages and large loans for renovations.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg has the largest number of Indigenous people who are inadequately housed of any Canadian city.

In February 2021, the parliamentary budget officer said rectifying that inequity nationally would cost an annual $1.4 billion. The Indigenous caucus of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association called for $25 billion over 10 years.

“I am shocked at how little they’ve invested,” said Christina Maes Nino, head of the Manitoba Non-Profit Housing Association.

“The urban, rural, northern Indigenous housing strategy is the biggest gap, and the most shameful gap, in the budget.”

In their budget, the Liberals pushed provinces to double the number of homes being built over the next decade.

For the first time in three decades, Ottawa will spend significantly for co-operative housing, by reallocating $1.5 billion slated for developers to instead create affordable homes in self-regulated buildings.

The Liberals said infrastructure and transit funding would be withheld from provinces and cities that impede new housing construction, starting around 2026.

“The federal government does not have all the tools to increase housing supply. So, we’ve tried to be really creative and put forward ways (Ottawa) can work with provinces and territories to provide housing supply,” Freeland said.

Maes Nino was glad to see Ottawa tighten the requirements for developers to receive funds for affordable housing, after above-market units were built in places like Winnipeg under the guise of being low-cost.

Winnipeg NDP MP Daniel Blaikie argued that only occurred because his NDP colleagues agreed to prop up the Trudeau government.

“One of the things we negotiated in our deal was a change in that definition,” he said.

“There were too many public funds going to developments that were likely to get built anyway, without any meaningful constraints on the rents being charged.”

Ottawa is planning to tighten rules that have allowed real estate trusts to buy rental properties and flip them for higher rates, which economists deem to be a major driver of soaring housing costs in Toronto and Vancouver.

The Liberals plan to give a one-time $500 payment to some low-income Canadians for housing by next March. In total, 950,000 people will get a payment at a cost of $475 million.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"