Liberal government spending for on-reserve housing is on pace to leave First Nations out in the cold for decades, if not more than a century, two New Democrat MPs charged on Thursday in Ottawa.
Newly released figures obtained by the NDP and provided to CBC News show the Canadian government has spent $2.37 billion through its on-reserve housing program since Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015.
That’s far less than the $40 billion to $60 billion the Assembly of First Nations, which lobbies for more than 600 chiefs countrywide, says it would take to close the housing gap — which Trudeau pledged to do by 2030.
“It will take between 58 and 141 years to meet current housing needs” if the spending rate persists, the NDP said in a Thursday release.
Northern Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, who obtained the internal accounting through an order paper question, said the reality on the ground is a “grossly unacceptable” persistence of third-world conditions.
“Enough of the symbolism. Enough of the feigned commitments when it comes to Indigenous communities,” she said at a news conference on Parliament Hill Thursday.
“Enough of the hollow promises on housing. It is time to act.”
Ashton joined Nunavut MP Lori Idlout, an Inuk lawyer and the NDP’s critic on the Indigenous Services portfolio, who painted a grim picture of the crisis facing her constituents.
“People are living in homes that are in dire need of repair. People are using tape and cardboard to repair cracks on floors and walls because repairs are not appropriately funded,” Idlout said.
“Overcrowding in homes has led to severe mental health issues and the spread of illnesses like tuberculosis.”
The AFN in a 2021 report called the impacts of the housing crisis on First Nations “enormous,” with overcrowding snowballing into other serious issues like health and socio‐economic problems, homelessness and more.
Liberals committed to 2030 goal: minister
Trudeau directed Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu to close the infrastructure gap, with a focus on building sustainable and affordable housing, in her mandate letter.
Speaking outside the House of Commons in Ottawa, Hajdu said the NDP’s assessment of the numbers was “a bit of an exaggeration.” She said the government is still distributing earmarked money and pledged to seek more cash in coming years.
“This government’s ambition is to meet the 2030 goal of closing the infrastructure gap, and that is going to require aggressive investments,” Hajdu said.
The numbers don’t lie, Ashton countered, calling Hajdu’s comments “pretty rich” because the numbers came from her own department.
Order paper questions offer parliamentarians a way to get answers in writing to detailed or technical questions. Ashton asked Indigenous Services for the amount of money First Nations requested, the amount disbursed, and the number of homes built.
The department refused to say how much money communities asked for, calling the information confidential, and would only release the amount spent, which shows an uptick after Trudeau’s Liberals took the reins.
Ottawa spent $132 million on the on-reserve housing program in 2015-16, which jumped to $404 million the following year, the chart says.
The program dates to 1996 and offers First Nations cash to build, renovate and maintain homes in their territories. The policy says Canada won’t cover the full cost of housing and expects First Nations to land cash through other channels like private-sector loans.
“There is a need for between 35,000 and 85,000 homes in Indigenous communities,” Ashton said.
First Nations were able to build more than 4,200 new homes between 2016 and March 2022 through the program, according to the documents, which don’t say how many were built in the Northwest Territories or in Métis and Inuit communities.
Last year, the NDP and the Liberals struck a bargain, dubbed a supply-and-confidence agreement, to keep Trudeau in power until 2025. The deal included a clause requiring Ottawa to make a “significant” investment in Indigenous housing in 2022.
The Liberal budget delivered $4.3 billion over seven years to improve and expand housing in Indigenous communities, of which more than half is for housing in First Nations.
Ashton and Idlout are calling for another boost in spending this budget, but wouldn’t say exactly how much.