Opinion: Houses from colonial past haunt modern-day treaty First Nation’s present

When I think about the 30 dilapidated, federally-funded INAC homes that Ucluelet First Nations members live in, I think about the light fixture hanging out of the ceiling of Veronica Williams’ house.

Canada doesn’t hesitate to send aid and expertise to humanitarian crises overseas, yet it can’t answer its own crisis at home?
Williams lives with her family and grandchild in a dilapidated shack. It’s one of many built in the 1970s and ’80s in the Ucluelet First Nation from government subsidies distributed through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) programs — money that members of the nation and the Assembly of First Nations’ housing expert say was never enough to meet the community’s needs.

When it rains, Williams and her family can’t turn the lights on because rain soaks through the tattered tarp covering the roof and drips through the light fixture’s hole into a bucket on the floor below. In her bedroom, there’s a bucket on the bed to catch leaking rain water. And, as she showed our photographer, the wall behind the toilet is turning into a pile of dark crumbling mould.

Williams’ house is just one example of the incomprehensible state of First Nations housing on reserve. How, in this day and age of modern-day treaties and reconciliation, was this allowed to happen?

The Ucluelet are a signatory to the Maa-nulth Treaty, which took effect in 2011. The deal gave the five Maa-nulth First Nations land, resources and some cash, as well as autonomy over their own futures. The treaty was supposed to hoist them out from under the Indian Act, which has controlled every aspect of Indigenous lives since it was first passed in 1876. But when it came to fixing a housing situation that that many — including the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples — have described as a crisis,  the treaty seems to have failed.

When I think about the people who live in those shacks in the Ucluelet First Nation, I’m convinced that they were forgotten during treaty negotiations.


Through the photographer’s eyes

Renny Mundy runs a chain through a hole in his wall and his rotting door to lock it. His south wall consists only of drywall, exposed insulation and a thin layer of mouldy siding, he showed photographer Darran Chaisson. Read Chaisson’s first-person account of what he found in Ucluelet. Darran Chaisson/The Discourse


Our photographer Darran Chaisson took photos of some of the 30 houses in Ucluelet, and the people living in them, because that was his job. He didn’t expect to be so disturbed and moved by what he found. How would officials from Indigenous Services Canada react if they made the same trip Chaisson just made? When was the last time they visited the Ucluelet First Nation?

I’d like to see them spend a week living in those houses, knowing what would happen if they turned on the lights when rain water was dripping through the live wires of a ceiling light fixture, or breathed in mould all day and night.

Canada doesn’t hesitate to send aid and expertise to humanitarian crises overseas, yet it can’t answer its own crisis at home? Sure, the government in its 2018 budget promised $600 million over 10 years to address the housing crisis on First Nations reserves, but that won’t stretch nearly far enough. Why? This amounts to $60 million per year, which after being divided up among 634 First Nations in Canada equals $94,637 per tribe — less than the cost of demolishing and rebuilding one house ($280,000). And if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can go to the Bahamas and visit the Aga Khan, then he can go to Ucluelet and visit the residents of those 30 homes and the crisis his administration has inherited.

Most disconcerting to me is the dispassionate response from federal government officials, who take no responsibility for the condition of these 30 homes. They provided housing subsidies when the homes were built, they told The Discourse — anything after that is the First Nation’s responsibility.

But the Indian Act completely controls Indigenous peoples’ lives from cradle to grave. It doesn’t reference housing specifically, but until the Maa-nulth Treaty, the Act alone controlled the decision-making and finances of the Ucluelet First Nation’s housing, and left the people with no say. It created the conditions in which these houses were built and its policy-makers should take responsibility for that now.

Ucluelet officials who negotiated their portion of the Maa-nulth treaty deserve a closer look too. While those officials were focused on brokering, land, resources and taxation with Canada and B.C., those 30 homes were crumbling with families inside them in plain view. So why didn’t Ucluelet officials make rebuilding these old, rotting INAC houses a make-or-break item in their negotiations?

There’s responsibility on both sides of that negotiating table, but ultimately the federal government needs to take responsibility for the crumbling houses its meagre subsidies built then failed to maintain. It has a moral obligation to step up now to lift these people out of poverty and give them a means to move forward with dignity as a self-governing people.

The Ucluelet nation can’t afford to tear these homes down themselves and rebuild. Its housing budget is financed with whatever money is left over at year’s end. This year, that meant just $150,000. Since tearing down just one home costs about $80,000, and rebuilding it costs another $200,000, this year’s housing money won’t get them very far.

But help may be on the way. One former Ucluelet official told The Discourse that early negotiations have begun between the federal government and several treaty nations whose fiscal agreements are expiring soon, which might lead to new agreements to finance modern-day treaty nations according to the true cost of governing. Housing may be a ticket item in these talks, but how big a ticket is anyone’s guess.

[embed_story post=”9950″ title=”” description=”Head of Ucluelet First Nation in B.C. says federal government should fix the houses it left to rot, but Ottawa says it’s not responsible for their upkeep.” button_text=”Read the full story”]

But these new agreements are at least two years away. And the everyday lived experiences of elders and families in these 30 shacks isn’t acceptable now.

If policy-makers think waiting another two years or more is acceptable, then:

Tell that to Renny Mundy, who lives and sleeps in a mould-ridden house with a tarp on his roof. To keep his door locked, he has to slip a chain through the hole where the doorknob should be and rope it through another hole in the frame.  

Tell that to Rose Wilson, the silver-haired 81-year-old elder who has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The residential school survivor still speaks her language, yet spends her twilight years watching her house fall down all around her.

And tell that to Veronica Williams and her family the next time they watch rainwater stream through the ceiling light fixture and can’t turn on the lights or they’ll risk being electrocuted.

Policy makers made decisions about Ucluelet’s housing in boardrooms far away from the remote West Coast of Vancouver Island. Yet it’s the ordinary people who live in those 30 houses who have to live with their impact.

They are still waiting for the promises that officials said signing modern-day self-governance treaties would deliver. They shouldn’t be made to wait any longer.[end]

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