Sunday was day one of Canada’s first-ever national Aboriginal urban housing summit in Winnipeg. The National Aboriginal Housing Association invited about 80 Aboriginal housing leaders from across the country for several days of information-sharing and strategizing. I was delighted, and honoured, to be invited to deliver a keynote address at the Sunday luncheon and will also be leading a policy and legislative workshop on Monday morning.
In the 1970s ad 1980s, Canada had among the best housing policies and programs in the world. But two decades of cuts by neo-liberal governments (Conservative and Liberal) at the federal level and in most provinces have led to massive spending cuts and downloading of housing programs to municipalities.
The theory was that local governments are “closest to the people” and therefore best able to assess local housing needs. It’s true that Winnipeg is different from Victoria which has different needs that Toronto. But local governments don’t have the revenue base to support affordable housing intiatives, even if they can assess local needs. That’s one reason why the Wellesley Institute launched our Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto last October, and why we are working with local governments and community groups across the country to develop practical local plans, and identify the tools that senior governments need to supply to realize those plans.
The governments making the cuts also hoped that private developers would pick up the slack. But while there has been a record level of activity by private home builders in most parts of the country, there have been few new truly affordable homes. Low, moderate and even middle-income households have been left standing on the sidelines, watching the affordable housing crisis and homelessnes s disaster grow steadily worse. Homelessness and housing insecurity has jumped dramatically.
As bad as the cuts have been for the entire spetrum of affordable housing (co-op, non-profit, municipal), Aboriginal housing providers have been among the hardest hit. And yet Aboriginal people (First Nations, Inuit and Metis) have an historic, treaty and fiduciary relationship with the federal government – a relationship that the federal government has neglected and abused.
Day one was spent doing a detailed environmental scan. In addition to a survey from the national scene, there were reports from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick. B.C. is leading the country. It has transferred the administration of Aboriginal housing programs to an Aboriginal-controlled agency called the Aboriginal Housing Management Association. Aboriginal housing providers are full partners, not treated as children who need constant supervision. Ontario was conspicuous by its absence. There has been virtually no positive policy change in that province, even though it is the biggest and richest province in Canada.
Day two will focus on the key components of a new national Aboriginal housing policy – the housing delivery mechanisms, policies and legislative changes, capacity-building and funding supports – that are required, and the strategies to achieve them.
I am always inspired by the energy and creativity of Aboriginal housing providers – and at the gains that they can make in a mostly hostile policy environment. Day two promises even more inspiration.
– Michael Shapcott