These Indigenous leaders had solutions for the N.W.T.'s housing crisis. Being denied federal funding stung
Rejection from $1 billion Rapid Housing Fund a setback for some leaders
This is part one of a series on the housing crisis in the Northwest Territories.
When Bill Enge found out about a new $1 billion federal housing fund last year, he hired an architect, builder and real estate developer.
The president of the North Slave Métis Alliance put together a proposal for a project the alliance had in mind for a long time: a 12-unit seniors housing complex, for roughly $12 million, in the heart of downtown Yellowknife.
Enge said it was a "herculean" effort for his team to make the deadline for the federal government's new Rapid Housing Initiative, just for the project to be shelved.
"The [Rapid Housing Initiative] ... was the first time we saw something that we could go after, that we would qualify for," he said.
"It's very frustrating for us."
The housing situation in the Northwest Territories has been described as a crisis, where more than 40 per cent of houses have at least one major problem to fix, and a dearth of affordable homes leads to overcrowding in many communities.
Some Indigenous leaders are speaking out about the difficulties of getting federal housing funding after their proposals did not go forward.
In December, the territory told Indigenous leaders about the federal government's initiative, which would be dedicated to urgent housing needs across the country.
The deadline was the end of the month — something K'atl'odeeche First Nation Chief April Martel said left her First Nation with very little time to get a proposal done.
"The proposal was complicated," Martel said. "They wanted every single price for every screw, and details about how you were going to build your modular homes. It was really difficult."
Martel drives by an empty lot on the back road of her reserve every day.
The space is supposed to be used for three of K'atl'odeeche First Nation's proposed 20 modular homes — which would give the reserve's most vulnerable men and women a place to live. The others would go to families on the reserve that don't have a place of their own.
All the First Nation needed to do was install some piping for sewage and water delivery.
The price tag for the homes totals $3.9 million, which Martel hoped the federal housing fund would cover.
Instead, the lot stays empty: a late application stalling any movement on the project of Martel's dreams.
"It really hurt," Martel said. "I actually cried. Personally, I felt a pain because the dream that I wanted just wasn't happening."
There are 260 people who live on the reserve, according to Martel, but only 80 houses, most of which need at least one major repair. That means most people, she continued, are living in damaged, overcrowded homes.
In March, Martel and Enge's found out their proposals, and a few others in the N.W.T., were not going to receive funding from the Rapid Housing Initiative. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the territory decided they could use some of a separate $60 million fund to support those projects — but neither Enge or Martel received any money when the fund was allocated last month.
- $60M housing fund for N.W.T. to be spent, 2 years after it was first announced
Mikaela Harrison, a spokesperson for CMHC, said they couldn't fund every project that was submitted because of "significant demand," but stressed that more community-led projects will be coming soon.
The corporation is also waiting to hear from the federal government later this spring about more Rapid Housing funding.
In the meantime, Harrison continued, CMHC will find other programs where these projects could fit.
Housing minister to lobby feds
Paulie Chinna, the territory's housing minister, said it's up to the federal government to decide how they will allocate their federal funds, but stressed she will continue to lobby them to give the projects a second look.
"We do put pressure on the federal government to see these applications be successful," she said. "The $60 million, I've made very clear, is not new money."
Chinna acknowledged the government's relationship with Indigenous leaders is "improving".
The N.W.T. Housing Corporation recently hired a community relations officer with CMHC, who will meet with local leadership and Indigenous groups. This person, Chinna continued, can also assist Indigenous groups with their funding applications if they need it.
Chinna said she's expecting more housing money in the federal government's upcoming budget, the first in two years due to the pandemic, but wouldn't say how much the territory is asking for.
She's hoping the money will go toward putting more housing units on the ground.
"We need to get people housed," she said. "We need to get rid of that overcrowding situation."
Martel urges others to speak up
Last month, Martel met CMHC for a tour of the community's housing needs.
Martel said CMHC committed to working with the First Nation on a project after that meeting, which she says is a start, but they have to commit to do the same with other Indigenous governments across the territory.
"I need other nations to say something, let the federal government know that we're here." - April Martel, chief of K'atl'odeeche First Nation
"[CMHC] needs to sit down with leadership and say 'look, this is what you need to do if you want to start getting housing in your place,'" Martel said. "Communication is a big thing here."
One thing leaders can do to prepare for this kind of meeting, Martel continued, is to do the research into the kind of housing challenges their people are facing, come up with a plan, and present it to organizations like CMHC for guidance.
Martel in particular wants more people to come forward, to make Ottawa recognize the extent of the territory's housing crisis.
"I'm still going to be working on funding, that's my goal," Martel said. "But I need other nations to say something, let the federal government know that we're here."