Thunder Bay

First Nations Housing Conference helps communities make the best of limited resources

The goal of many participants at the annual First Nations Housing Conference is to help communities improve their housing situations, said presenter Jonathan Gregg

'Most communities, we find solutions. It's never enough funding but at least we're moving forward'

Delegates to the 2020 First Nations Housing Conference assemble on stage after the opening ceremonies for photos. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

Jonathan Gregg opened the First Nations Housing Conference in Thunder Bay, Ont., this year by demonstrating the impact of housing shortages in First Nations communities.

The technical services manager with the Independent First Nations Alliance marked off an area of the conference room matching the size of an average home in an Indigenous community, and then asked delegates how many people were sharing houses in their own communities.

As people shouted numbers such as "11" and "20" from the floor, Gregg asked a corresponding number of people to stand inside the home-shaped area in order to illustrate how crowded the homes were.  Gregg himself had recently visited a community where 37 people shared one house. 

"I just talked about the daily living – trying to imagine that there's only one washroom and dealing with that, having 37 people wanting to use the washroom in the morning, just even trying to sleep in the home," he said.  

The goal of many conference's participants is to help communities improve their housing situations, by doing assessments and inspections in order to better understand their housing situation, applying for funding for new homes and getting new homes built, said Gregg.

"Most communities, we find solutions," he said. "It's never enough funding but at least we're moving forward in most communities."  

"Some of the communities I've helped," Gregg said, "they have built 10 homes every year. Communities have increased their rental program.  We work on a strategy for how to bring in revenue and also just target funders and bring this awareness that housing is needed."

Gregg also advocates working with the communities' operations and maintenance departments to use local crews as much as possible in order to save money and maximize the number of homes that can be built, he said. 

Asked what First Nations need from other levels of government in order to address overcrowding in homes in their communities, Gregg said they need a better communication system and a First Nations-led approach to problem-solving. 

"We're starting to understand our current needs and our housing needs, and we want to share that with government so that we're at least on the same page when we're starting," he said. "We just want to be heard and together come up with a strategy to build more homes."

Some communities need 300 to 400 new dwellings, he said, but added, "the reality is, there's not enough dollars right now, so we just have to make the best with what we get."