Some Indigenous leaders reject PM's 'out of touch' housing comments

Some Indigenous leaders are rejecting the prime minister's remark that “housing isn't a primary federal responsibility." Carol McBride, a former chief and now president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, says "I can’t believe he said that."

'I can’t believe he said that,' responds Native Women's Association of Canada head Carol McBride

Short-haired individual wearing glasses and a blue and black shawl, looking upwards.
Carol McBride, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada and Algonquin leader and Elder from Timiskaming First Nation. (Lindsey Gibeau)

Don't tell Carol McBride housing isn't a primary federal responsibility. 

As a former chief, McBride remembers being in a housing crisis when she led the Timiskaming First Nation in northwestern Quebec — and that was in the 1990s.

Now president of the Native Women's Association of Canada in Ottawa, she was dismayed to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau try to distance his government from the housing file last month.

"It led me to believe that he's totally out of touch with Indigenous issues," McBride said, adding that on-reserve housing is a federal responsibility.

"We count on the federal government, for sure, for housing. For him to say that is totally out of the playing field. I'm telling you: I can't believe he said that."

At a news conference in Hamilton July 31, Trudeau told reporters "housing isn't a primary federal responsibility," nor a file Ottawa has "direct carriage of." While he added "it is something that we can and must help with," opposition parties pounced. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters as cabinet members look on during the Liberal cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, August 23, 2023.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters as cabinet members look on during the Liberal cabinet retreat in Charlottetown, P.E.I. on Wednesday, August 23, 2023. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

The federal Conservatives circulated the clip in online attacks, while the NDP slammed the comment as out-of-touch finger pointing, a snub to the urgent housing crunch Indigenous communities face.

McBride, a former activist, councillor, 13-year chief and two-term grand chief of the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, pointed to Trudeau's big promises of clean water and good infrastructure for First Nations on the campaign trail in 2015.

"Where has that gone?" she asked.

"He's dismissing what he campaigned on. I'm very disappointed in him coming out to say that it wasn't his responsibility."

While Trudeau's comments were mainly aimed at provinces, which he accused of not doing enough on housing, Canada's Constitution places First Nations and their reserves under federal jurisdiction.

'The federal government is responsible'

Paul Irngaut remembers how Ottawa promised Inuit housing if they abandoned their traditional way of life and moved to settlements.

He and his family moved into a "matchbox" house with no running water and no toilet, except a bucket with a garbage bag, he recalled. There were eight of them. 

"Overcrowding started way back then," said Irngaut by phone from Iqaluit.

"So for Inuit, definitely, the federal government is responsible for housing."

He is now vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which represents Inuit under the Nunavut Agreement.

He said he hopes Trudeau and his cabinet think hard about solutions as they gather for a retreat this week in Prince Edward Island, where housing is billed as a top priority. 

A portrait of a man wearing a parka outdoors in snowy landscape.
Paul Irngaut was elected vice president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated in 2022. (Paul Irngaut/Facebook)

It's disheartening to hear talk of a housing crisis in the South given the long-standing situation in the North, Irngaut said.

"We have been in a crisis level for several years."

In the West, as president of the Métis Settlements General Council, Dave Lamouche leads the central government for the only legislated, land-based Metis in Canada. 

They occupy eight settlements throughout Alberta, cumulatively about the size of P.E.I., and they too face a serious housing shortage and overcrowding, Lamouche said, which has "a domino effect" on health and social cohesion.

"The federal government needs to take full responsibility and make [housing] a primary concern, because it's people that we're dealing with," Lamouche said.

In a report last year, the House of Commons Indigenous affairs committee echoed these concerns, finding that the Indigenous housing shortage has cascading negative effects on health, economic development, educational success, family life, cultural continuity and more.

Its main recommendations were simple: work with Indigenous people to build more housing to alleviate the systemic overcrowding conditions, though recent reports suggest that won't be easy.

A dire deficit

In December 2021, the Assembly of First Nations pegged the cost of closing the on-reserve housing gap at $60 billion, calling it the price of reversing decades of federal neglect. 

In that same year, Nunavut's then-MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq toured the territory documenting deplorable conditions including mould, overcrowding and unsafe homes needing urgent repairs.

A room with damaged, unpainted drywall full of holes. Electric wiring is seen through the holes.
An example of some the housing conditions then-MP for Nunavut Mumilaaq Qaqqaq documented in a tour of the territory in 2021. (Mumilaaq Qaqqaq/'Sick of Waiting': A report on Nunavut's housing crisis)

According to the territorial government's Nunavut Housing Corp., challenges range from inadequate supply, aging infrastructure, climate change and short-term land-use planning, to soaring construction costs.

Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, the average unit price spiked to $923,447 from $379,780, the housing corporation said in its Nunavut 3,000 report last year. The ambitious plan aims to get 3,000 homes built by 2030, but given those prices, Irngaut doubts it's doable.

Meanwhile, the Métis settlements provided the Indigenous affairs committee with relatable statistics in its presentation.

In one settlement, the overcrowding rate was said to be 32 per cent, or eight times greater than the general non-Indigenous population, a statistic that holds true both on reserves and in Nunavut. 

When criticized, the Liberals often point to this budget's seven-year, $4-billion pledge for an urban, rural and northern Indigenous housing strategy.

But spread over seven years — and with the need that great and prices so high — it's going to dwindle fast, said Lamouche.

"With so many Indigenous communities across Canada, it doesn't really amount to much."


Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.