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Easing the crisis

Two housing initiatives for Canadian First Nations

OTTAWA - Two housing initiatives aim to ease the housing crisis at the reserves of Canada's First Nations.

The Canadian government has kicked off its previously announced First Nations Market Housing Fund, an ambitious effort that aims to construct 25,000 homes on Canadian reserves over 10 years. And the government, the province of British Columbia, and the First Nations Leadership Council have signed an agreement to improve housing for British Columbia Natives living on- and off-reserve.

The $300 million housing fund aims to resolve a barrier to home ownership on reserves in Canada that mirrors the one on U.S. reservations - land status that makes it difficult for a lender to perfect a security interest.

Assembly of First Nations Grand Council Chief John Beaucage has been named chairman of the fund. He said the fund, ''while respecting the culture of communal ownership of land,'' will ''include homeownership, rental and renovations, in First Nations communities. The fund is intended to help families and individuals living on reserve lands and settlement lands where appropriate, where they are unable to provide appropriate security to financial institutions to obtain loans.''

The country's mortgage agency, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Council, will administer the program.

''First Nations members will now have the same housing opportunities and responsibilities as other Canadians, and a new ability to meet housing demands,'' said Chuck Strahl, Canada's minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.

The fund was developed with input from the government, the AFN and financial institutions like BMO Bank of Montreal.

The fund itself will not make loans but will backstop the guarantees the First Nations will make to the lending institutions. In the event of a default, the lender can apply to the fund's credit enhancement facility ''for compensation up to the amount of credit enhancement which the financial institution has accumulated for loans in the community.''

Credit enhancement is necessary because the Indian Act and some self-governance rules of the First Nations prohibit seizure of property in case of default. Communal ownership status and lack of rental regimes at some First Nations were also cited as obstacles.

Another aspect of the fund is capacity development, to support ''the provision of training, advice and coaching which focuses on developing market-based housing capacity for qualified First Nations and members of these communities.''

First Nations wanting to use the fund must demonstrate several access criteria, including competency in financial management, good governance, and support for market-based housing, plus community members that can afford homeownership or market rentals.

In British Columbia, the First Nations Leadership Council, the province and the national government have signed a memorandum of understanding to work together to improve housing for British Columbia Natives whether on- or off-reserve.

Chief Judith Sayers, First Nations Summit Task Group member, said: ''For too long, our people have lived in substandard, unhealthy homes which affect our physical and emotional well-being. We need comprehensive, strategic action to address the critical housing crisis First Nations in British Columbia are facing.''

A committee of all parties to the MOU will be seated within three months, and then will meet annually ''to collaboratively develop a plan for interlinked on- and off-reserve housing strategies in support of First Nations individuals and families,'' the council said.

The committee will discuss barriers and address housing gaps between British Columbia Natives and other residents of the province.