Thunder Bay hosts national conference on First Nations housing

More than 270 delegates from across Canada are in Thunder Bay, Ont., this week, learning to install windows, taking workshops in construction tendering and listening to presentations about building codes and fire safety planning - all part of the annual First Nations Housing Conference, which expanded its scope this year to become a national event.

Organizers say it's now the largest event of its kind in Canada

(Heather Kitching/CBC)

More than 270 delegates from across Canada are in Thunder Bay, Ont., this week, learning to install windows, taking workshops in construction tendering and listening to presentations about building codes and fire safety planning — all part of the annual First Nations Housing Conference, which expanded its scope this year to become a national event.

Organizers say it's now the largest event of its kind in Canada.

Rat Portage First Nation housing manager Chris L. Skead is at the conference for the second time since taking over the community's housing portfolio just over a year ago. 

Last year's event gave him the information he needed to start revitalizing the community's rental system, he said.

"I listened to a very knowledgeable lady by the name of Roxanne Harper last year, and she is telling you to run your housing department like a business," he said. "It's a mutli-million dollar business, and it should be ran as such."

He also got to start building a network of people from other communities facing challenges similar to his, he said. 

The conference's theme, "Building on Tradition" is a toast to the things First Nations housing managers are getting right, said Jonathan Gregg, a member of the working group that organized the conference.

In particular, First Nations are doing a good job of making sure houses are keeping pace with building codes and are sustainable and energy efficient, he said. 

But they are still facing considerable challenges.

'some of this country's finest housing managers on reserves'

"There's always not enough funding to build the required amount of units," Gregg said. "And then sometimes some of the challenges are [finding] the proper skilled trades in the community and then trying to bridge that gap through training programs." 

Conference presenter Sylvia Olsen is working to help professionalize the job of First Nations housing manager, in part to help build respect for what she calls a stigmatized profession, both on and off reserve — a product of housing managers trying to operate within a broken system, she said.

"In truth, there are some of this country's finest housing managers on reserves.  There are incredibly highly skilled housing managers on reserve," she added.

Olsen, who co-presented a workshop at the conference on collaboration between housing managers, hopes the professionalization process would not only help managers solve problems, but also serve as a step toward First Nations taking over full control of their housing from the federal government.

The conference continues through Thursday.