A new way to build homes for First Nations
LAST month, I was in Winnipeg for the Annual General Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to announce that we’ll be working with First Nations groups to build communities.
I’m excited about this opportunity; it gives us the chance to build homes for people who need them, in communities that work and make sense. And we can also build skills and develop capacity, so those communities can grow independently in the future.
But that’s not all. We’re going to build the right way: We’re going to build using sustainable materials and methods and clean energy. And we’re going to build so these communities are integrated into the natural landscape, and the impact of building them is reduced as much as possible.
There are many challenges with First Nations housing. There is a housing shortage; has been for a long time. And there are serious problems with First Nations housing stock and infrastructure, problems that date back many generations.
Many First Nations communities are remote and isolated. They have no phone lines, no electricity, no outdoor plumbing. There are social problems and problems with education and health care.
We need to promote some public awareness of the housing conditions in too many First Nations communities. Canadians are living in Third World conditions. It’s shocking that so many First Nations communities live under boil-water orders — and this, in the country with the world’s largest freshwater supply.
This is a pilot project. We’ll document the process and provide it for any First Nations groups who want to follow in our footsteps. We want to build homes and build capacity: the ability to create more homes and more communities on a model that’s appropriate to First Nations culture.
It’s one thing to swoop in and build a bunch of houses typical of a North American subdivision, then leave. That’s been done before as a solution to First Nations housing needs, and it hasn’t worked. But without leaving the capacity behind within the community to maintain those houses, they will degrade. And if those houses aren’t the ‘right kind’ in the first place — that is, they aren’t appropriate for the climate and lifestyle of the people who will live in them, then odds are, they won’t last.
We need to meet the needs of First Nations housing, not just impose our vision. Theirs is a culture with a sense of great environmental responsibility. We want to add the values of energy efficiency and sustainability to build a community that is appropriate for the future of our planet.
Protection of wildlife migration routes, plant habitat, water run-off and surface drainage — all this is interconnected and needs to be valued and recognized and incorporated in the design of the community. We need to protect our boreal forests, wetlands and tundra. They soak up and store hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon — around 22 per cent of the carbon on Earth, more than the tropical rainforests. That will slow down climate change.
The natural forests act as watersheds, carbon sinks, air purifiers, climate moderators and wildlife habitat. We need to protect them, in all of our building efforts.
Maybe clear-cutting forests and damming and diverting rivers for big hydroelectric power generation isn’t such a great idea. Microgeneration — small power — is more efficient, and we’ve come to a point where it’s possible to implement and integrate it in all of our community planning.
Most of our country’s power is provided by huge hydro generating plants and coal-fired stations. Since many First Nations communities are so remote, it’s very expensive to bring big power to them. These remote communities could take advantage of microgeneration. Off the grid, they could generate their own energy from clean renewable sources, be interconnected, and provide backup and redundancy for one another.
One of the most important elements of the communities will be communication. Telepresence and satellite Internet will allow bands to communicate with one another and with tribal leaders and to share information on community development. It will help create a foundation for business and economic development and the growth of cottage industries. It will reconnect urban and rural citizens of First Nations, keeping the culture vibrant and alive. Also, it will link to the Canadian business community, allowing First Nations to seize economic opportunity.
We can build smart communities that are fully integrated through the Internet with a communications infrastructure that can support the education, government services and health-care needs. We can connect remote communities in a way that’s never been done before.
My team is working with the AFN to develop a model community — and to build the first pilot. It will incorporate appropriate green technology and sustainable building practices, and use clean energy and innovative materials. But, just as important, it will integrate the natural environment and First Nations’ fundamental principals of extended family and traditional social systems. We will respect the land and the landscape by building within it — not bending it to suit our needs. We want to create holistic and sustainable communities that are technologically connected and smart.
We want to create real change. And to do that, we all need to act — collectively and individually. I’m proud the First Nations asked me to walk with them. We’ll make it right together.
For more information on home renovations, visit makeitright.ca.
— Postmedia News
Manitoba First Nations housing: many of the houses on Garden Hill First Nations lack running water and sewer.