Resilience Environmental Solutions is honoured to be working with Cleantech Community Gateway and the T’Sou-ke Nation on a ground-breaking social innovation project that involves net-zero building and renewable energy. Utilizing the expertise and experience of Eli Enns, and the pioneering and visionary accomplishments of the T’Sou-ke First Nation and Chief Gordon Planes, our team aims to develop social innovation solutions that can be applied in other communities across BC and ultimately across Canada and further afield.
The housing crisis in Indigenous communities is chronic, deep-rooted, and in need of innovative solutions. We are encouraged that the federal government of Canada has included significant funding for Indigenous communities in its recent budget announcement.
The Assembly of First Nations’ collective vision for housing is that “All First Nation members living on or away from their community have a right to shelter and they must be provided with an opportunity to access safe, secure, adequate and affordable housing” (Assembly of First Nations, 2016). Contrasted with this vision is the reality that since the advent of the Indian Act, substandard and deplorable housing conditions have been a persistent and growing phenomenon in many Indigenous communities and the situation is likely to worsen with increased demographic pressure in years to come. The housing situation in many Indigenous communities across Canada is not just an issue of poor building policies and practices, it also encompasses broader issues related to health, justice, human rights and Indigenous rights (Clark, Riben, & Nowgesic, 2002; Larcombe et al., 2011; Olsen, 2016). The lack of adequate housing serves as a reminder of the colonial legacy and complex relationship between the state and Indigenous peoples in Canada. From the homes themselves which are rife with mold infestation and lack of structural integrity, to the system in which Aboriginal housing operates, there continues to be complex dynamics within Canada’s Indigenous housing system (Olsen, 2016).
The Indigenous population is among the fastest growing in Canada, and the lack of housing to accommodate this growth is resulting in the increased displacement of individuals and families from their communities (Statistics Canada, 2008). Current housing programs primarily driven by the federal government, do not meet the increasing demand for new housing units brought on by the higher than average population growth, overcrowding, and deteriorating units as a result of poor construction and impacts from mold. Of the federal housing programs that are underway in First Nations communities, the majority continue to move forward with little consideration of culture or sustainability (Assembly of First Nations, 2016; Olsen, 2016). Fifty percent of First Nations on-reserve housing falls below Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation qualitative and/or quantitative standards. In 2011, 27.2% of First Nations on reserve were living in crowded dwellings; one in 10 (11%) lived in a dwelling with 1.5 people or more per room. The average number of persons per room is 20% higher for First Nations people living on-reserve than for the rest of the Canadian population. Overcrowded living conditions place stress on the physical structure of the home and leads to its premature decline (Taylor, 2011). By 2031, it is estimated that there will be a backlog of 130,000 units, 44% of the existing units will require major repairs, and 18% will require replacement (Assembly of First Nations, 2012).
Poor housing quality and overcrowded housing are associated both directly (causally) and indirectly with communicable diseases, illness due to accidents and injuries, psychological ill health and social dysfunction (Larcombe et al., 2011). Mold growing in houses has become a major health concern, leading to increased susceptibility to respiratory infection, asthma, and allergies. Crowded living conditions can lead to the transmission of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and hepatitis A. (Statistics Canada, 2008). The incidence of TB is 34 times higher among First Nations people living on-reserve compared to the rest of Canadians. A direct linear association has been demonstrated between overcrowding of houses on-reserve and the incidence of TB. Similar associations have been noted for other respiratory, diarrheal and skin and soft tissue infections in Canadian and other Aboriginal populations (Larcombe et al., 2011). A combination of malnutrition, confinement on crowded reservations with poor sanitation, and lack of immunity to the TB bacillus contributes substantially to these outcomes. Overcrowded housing conditions can increase exposure of susceptible people to those with infectious respiratory disease, and in doing so may increase the probability of transmission (Clark, Riben, & Nowgesic, 2002).
While many First Nations have undertaken innovative and successful initiatives to address the housing backlog, many more rely on federal programs to provide homes for their members. Federal agencies have created programs designed for off-reserve housing initiatives and tried to make them fit in the First Nations communities context. However, programs need to be rooted in the needs and aspirations of the community and reflective of the cultural identity of the people. Sustainability and community planning are key components (Assembly of First Nations, 2016).The federal government’s first ever National Housing Strategy (NHS) includes as a principle that First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation housing strategies must be co-developed and founded on the values of self-determination, reconciliation, respect, and cooperation (Government of Canada, 2017). These rights are informed by and substantiated through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and direction from the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs-in-Assembly resolutions (Assembly of First Nations, 2012). The NHS also prioritizes green building with an aim to achieve at least a 25% reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over national building and energy codes.
A practical approach to making home ownership more affordable is by incorporating sustainable building technologies into building design, thereby encouraging energy and water conservation. Given that the variable cost of operating a home is largely dependent on utility bills, this will help minimize the amount of income dedicated to home ownership as well as the added benefit of reducing the home’s environmental footprint (Taylor, 2011). Low income levels of First Nations members combined with high energy costs has led to extremely high levels of energy poverty; First Nations living on reserve use on average 26.75% of their incomes on energy (Assembly of First Nations, 2012). As a result, sustainable housing and building retrofits are also coupled with renewable energy development in this research project. First Nations are already substantially involved in the renewable energy sector, and development of renewable energy can serve as a pathway towards energy independence for many communities. Cook et al (2017) surveyed 105 First Nations involved in renewable energy projects and found that 49 respondents had operational projects or projects under development in all but one development region of British Columbia. Thirty respondents indicated having 78 operational projects with a total generating capacity of 1,836 MW. Thirty-two respondents indicated 48 projects in planning or construction. Of operational projects, 42 were selling power back to the grid through BC Hydro’s Call for Power program. These projects make up the vast majority (96%) of the generating capacity of operational projects. First Nations are not only benefitting economically from renewable energy development, but in myriad other ways including increased self-sufficiency, community capacity, and pride (Cook et al., 2017).