Northern Ontario First Nation residents get to design their own homes in pilot project

The people of Nibinamik First Nation are trying to do away with colonial-style government housing and instead design homes that are more suitable for the community.

Government prefab homes unsuitable and 'force them to live a certain way,' urban planner says

The dream home. For some it may be attainable, for others it's aspirational. Either way, for most Canadians it's easy to imagine.

But for those living on a remote reserve in Northern Ontario, the concept doesn't exist.

How can we live like this?- Natasha Sugarhead

Nibinamik First Nation is recovering from an awful summer. Two youth suicides and several attempts; a power outage that spoiled all the wild meat; and a wildfire that forced mass evacuation. And at the heart of the community's strife: an enduring housing crisis.

But there may be a silver lining. For the first time, the people of Nibinamik First Nation are being asked what their dream homes would look like.

Nibinamik was established in the mid-seventies by six families who left a nearby Catholic settlement and built log cabins here using materials from the land. Those homes are still standing (though barely), setting them apart from most reserves, which rely solely on prefabricated government homes. The community has its share of those, too.

With the population now hovering around 350, and growing, Nibinamik's housing situation has become dire.

"It gets really cold — like you're in a fridge, basically," said Natasha Sugarhead, 22, who lives with her mother in an old house that literally has holes in the wall. She's covered them with cardboard and duct tape but hesitates to turn on the heat in winter because of a hazardous stovepipe.

Natasha Sugarhead, 22, lives with her mother in an old house that's in desperate need of repairs. (Kristy Hutter/CBC)

"It makes me feel disgusted, actually. How can we live like this?"

Some have it even worse.

Most — if not all — houses in the community have long-standing mould issues. Some don't have running water. And many are overcrowded. It's not uncommon to see up to four generations living in a one-bedroom house.

A housing crisis is typically defined by these kinds of poor conditions and infrastructure problems, but some say it actually runs much deeper than that.

Homes designed to 'control a population'

From the outset, the design of First Nations home has been colonial. In the 1960s, the government shipped building materials to reserves across the province, along with pamphlets instructing not only how to build the house but also how to live in it.

"Design has been used here in a way to control a population and force them to live a certain way," said Shelagh McCartney, whose team of urban planners from Ryerson University has for the past two years been assessing the community's housing needs. "This isn't a marketplace where there's, like, lots of people coming and building different types of homes."

Government blueprints for 'Indian House type 5' from the 1960s — one of the designs used for reserve housing. (Library and Archives Canada)

McCartney says the cookie-cutter homes they've been given are not suitable for people who are meant to live off the land.

"We've tried to assimilate people into them, forcing people to live in a certain condition. If anyone was being controlled in that way, you'd have a mental health issue."

In fact, suicide ideation among the youth has spiked recently, putting the entire community on edge. As the leader of the community's youth council, Sugarhead has been spending more and more nights on suicide watch. In her young life, she has lost all three of her brothers to suicide.

Located in northern Ontario, Nibinamik First Nation is so remote, you can only get there by plane — or by car if you can get there during the two-week window for the winter road. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

"Change needs to happen, because these concerns and issues that we have is depressing here." 

McCartney believes that if a community can reclaim its culture through its homes, the community can start to heal and find its way to wellness.

Abandoning colonial housing

The Ryerson team is piloting a project that puts the power of design into the hands of community members and asks them how they would design their houses if they had the choice.

On their latest visit, the urban planners worked with individual families to design their ideal homes with cardboard and lay them out on a giant map of the community.

Some ideas that came from community members include:

  • Orienting the house with an emphasis on communal gathering areas, fewer hallways.
  • Sizing bedrooms according to how many people sleep in them.
  • Abandoning fossil fuels and using the sun and the wind to heat and ventilate homes.
  • Creating outdoor spaces where people can interact, such as internal courtyards and wraparound porches.
  • Including more outdoor storage space to accommodate equipment such as ATVs, snowmobiles and hunting gear.

The strategy is to abandon the colonial housing model and make the design process autonomous.

"Rather than someone from the outside coming in, taking a house and dumping it in the community, they'll get to pick where it goes, they'll be able to lay it out exactly as they want," McCartney said . "So people will feel different within those homes, and I think that's the main thing we're looking for."

But when the design process is complete, the community will face yet another hurdle before anything gets built.

'We've been given the runaround'

Through treaties and land claims settlements, the government is obligated to provide money for housing to First Nations who lost land and resources due to colonization.

But Chief Johnny Yellowhead says no matter how hard he tries, the band cannot accommodate everyone with the annual funding allotted by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).

Chief Johnny Yellowhead brainstorms funding options for housing with a team of urban planners from Ryerson University. (Kristy Hutter/CBC)

"When we get the funding, it's minimal, and it comes with mandates," Yellowhead said. "Some people think the government gives free money, but it's not like that. You have to work with the process. It gets frustrating.

"We've been trying to build houses for the last 20 years. We've been given the runaround."

INAC says it supports Nibinamik's efforts to develop a "long-term and sustainable housing program."

The department says Budget 2016 allotted funding of approximately $1.37 million toward housing on the First Nation.

But the government doesn't understand the challenges the community faces, McCartney says.

"I blame bureaucracy," she said. "A lot of people that are working within these systems and in these offices haven't necessarily been to a remote community."

McCartney says the expense and logistics of transporting materials to the remote community and all the unexpected crises have made it difficult for the residents to plan and make decisions.

And INAC has strict fiscal deadlines attached to the funding.

"Artificial deadlines just really get on my nerves," McCartney said. "It's not self-determination if you say to people 'you have to do what the state says and it has to look like this.'"

McCartney and her team have helped Nibinamik create a housing policy with input from the community members rather than outsiders, the way it's usually done. That will let them access funding from other sources, such as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

If funding gets approved, construction on those homes designed by the community may begin in earnest next year. It will be a step in the right direction for a reserve in urgent need of 60 new houses. And then maybe that concept of the dream will become easier to believe.


Kristy is an associate producer at The Weekly with Wendy Mesley. She previously worked at The National, with CBC Toronto and with CBC Radio. She has a masters specializing in international journalism from City University in London (U.K.) and a bachelor's degree from the University of King's College in Halifax.