One of the presenters at this week's First Nations Housing Conference in Thunder Bay, Ont., says First Nations housing managers deserve more respect.

Sylvia Olsen is a former housing manager with the Tsartlip First Nation in British Columbia who helped design a First Nations Housing Manager certificate program at Vancouver Island University.

Olsen would like to professionalize the role of housing manager, she said, in part to combat the stigma that goes with the roll.

"[There's a] huge stigma," she told CBC.

 "Off reserve, [people] look at the housing being such a mess, and they think, 'well the housing managers must not know what the hell they're doing.'  On reserve, the housing manager [is] a tough job, and it's often the focus of a lot of conflict. And in government, and organizationally, we're often seen as needing capacity — and we do.  We do need capacity.  But that often frames us up through our lack rather than through our strengths."

Some of the finest housing managers in Canada are on reserve

In truth, Olsen said, some of Canada's finest housing managers can be found on reserves, but they get a bad rap because they are operating within the limitations of a broken system.

While many people talk about the "incidental problems" faced by housings managers, such as collecting rent and getting people to maintain their homes, Olsen said, there are bigger, structural problems in the way government manages First Nations housing. 

"Canada is the only country other than New Zealand, Australia and the United States that have had their government run a housing program for an entire race or group of people," she said.  "Everywhere in the world knows it doesn't work."

"While you might hear that First Nations are responsible for their houses," she continued, "they're not.  They're responsible for delivering government housing programs."

When Olsen first became a housing manager, she realized her powers amounted to those of a finger on a body, she said.

Government housing programs should exist for people with specific needs at specific times in their lives, as they do off-reserve, Olsen said, but not for entire classes of people.

Taking over control of housing from the government

"People need to run their own housing programs," she added.

Olsen hopes professionalizing the housing manager portfolio will ultimately help prepare housing managers to take over control of First Nations housing from the federal government, she said.

In the meantime, she said, she hopes the creation of a professional body would raise the profile of the job and perhaps raise money to support managers in their work.

"It also works for the housing manager that's struggling to see that he or she is in a legitimate and respected field," she added.

Olsen's session at the First Nations Housing Conference focused on ways in which housing managers can collaborate. 

The conference wraps up Thursday afternoon.