Indigenous communities face 'abhorrent' housing conditions, UN report finds

The United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing presented a new report to the General Assembly Friday highlighting the struggle of Indigenous communities around the world in attaining safe and secure housing.

Report a 'wake-up call,' says special rapporteur Leilani Farha

This housing complex is under construction in Iqaluit's downtown core. Right now, around 5,000 people are waiting for public housing in the territory. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Indigenous people fare far worse than non-Indigenous populations when it comes to attaining safe and secure housing, both worldwide and here in Canada, according to a new United Nations report.

The UN's special rapporteur on adequate housing, Ottawa's Leilani Farha, presented the report to the General Assembly Friday.

It found that Indigenous communities lag behind when it comes to housing conditions and that their territories tend to be the "most disadvantaged in terms of access to infrastructure, including access to drinking water and sanitation, education and health services."

"This particular group is living in really the most abhorrent housing conditions worldwide," Farha said.

"And it's not unique to one group of Indigenous peoples in one country. It is across the world, and the conditions are so terrible that I felt I needed to draw the international community's attention to this situation."

'It's wake-up time'

Farha said Canada in particular is failing to provide Indigenous communities with proper housing — and recent figures back up that claim.

According to figures provided by Indigenous Services Canada earlier this year, nearly 5,500 homes on Manitoba First Nations either require major renovations or need to be replaced.

In Nunavut, there are currently around 5,000 people waiting for public housing, and half of the territory's population live in overcrowded homes.

"People [are] sleeping in shifts," said Farha. 

"I'm not saying housing up north is an easy fix, but I am saying that things have been let go for far too long, and it's wake-up time." 

Ottawa's Leilani Farha is the UN's special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. She says Indigenous communities around the world are struggling to find safe and secure housing. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

According to Farha's research, close to half of all First Nations people in Canada live on reserves, and more than 25 per cent of those residing on reserves live in overcrowded conditions.

Her report also found that "more than 10,000 on-reserve homes in Canada are without indoor plumbing, and 25 per cent of reserves in Canada have substandard water or sewage systems."

"It's absolutely scandalous," said Farha. "How is that possible and acceptable in a wealthy nation like Canada?"

In July, the Attawapiskat band council in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency after tests showed their tap water had potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs).

Although the community has a separate system set up for its drinking water, it's also starting to register rising levels of THMs and HAAs. 

"I think governments need to recognize that this is an urgent situation," said Farha.

Nigel Nakogee, 17, holds a sign in front of the Attawapiskat band office on July 9, 2019, protesting the community's water quality problems. (Rosie Koostachin/Facebook)

Broken relationships

The solution goes far beyond just building new homes, said Jesse Thistle, a  Métis-Cree scholar from Saskatchewan who has studied homelessness in Indigenous communities in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"Being connected to the land, to animals, to each other ... all these things play into the Indigenous understanding of wholeness," he said.

Thistle said the current housing crisis is a reflection of the broken relationships between Indigenous communities and governments and the residual affects of colonial displacement.

"Indigenous homelessness is not inherent to Indigenous societies themselves and it's not a moral failing or a mismanagement of money," he said.

Farha agrees with Thistle's sentiments.

"There has to be a complete renegotiation of the relationship between state and Indigenous peoples," she said. "That would include recognizing past wrongs and committing to redress those past wrongs."

With files from Jorge Barrera, Riley Laychuk and Beth Brown