Realities of reserve housing.

Every new year we see a pile of retrospective “stories of the year” being reprinted and broadcast. The reality is that much of the press is enjoying their holiday season and those “year that was” sort of things make for good filler. One story that is in every compilation of issues this year has been the housing crisis on the Attawapiskat reserve. We can pretty much see that story every year in January, the only thing that really changes is the name of the reserve that has hit crisis levels.

The optics from Attawapiskat were striking. People were living in terrible conditions on a Northern reserve with a long cold winter looming before them. A person would have to be totally heartless to not feel terribly for the conditions that these people are living in and enduring.

When most people see scenes like that, they want to see the situation changed and as soon as possible. Unfortunately people often gravitate towards the the most simplistic of solutions to troubles and assume that government has somehow been shorting our aboriginal communities in support for housing. Our State Broadcaster (the CBC) is always overjoyed to perpetuate that myth.

The reality is that we have been massively increasing support for housing on aboriginal communities through funding and education in management. The harder reality is that little will change on reserves in Canada no matter how much we increase resources directed towards them because the entire concept of the reserve system and the Indian Act is a catastrophic and unworkable failure.

I suspect that many people don’t understand the damage that has been done due to generations of utter dependency and a lack of property ownership in our system of racial segregation through reserves. I took a drive to a nearby reserve the other day to take some pictures and demonstrate the futility of trying to build new housing in perpetuity.

The reserve I toured was a Dene one in Northern Alberta. This reserve is actually in much better shape than many that I have worked on in the North. Much of that is due to relatively easy access, a nearby flourishing energy industry and an large band based oilfield services company. Despite all that though, 70% of the adult population of this reserve is unemployed (the service company primarily employs off-reserve people) and only 18% of adult members possess a high school equivalent diploma despite constantly rebuilt educational facilities. This is no fault of the residents. Nobody can easily be functional in the workforce or educational system when raised in these messed up enclaves of dependency and misery that we call reserves. Simply  working one’s way out of a rut is not really an option for most though the means appear to be right there.

Despite being better than your typical reserve, this one demonstrates the many traits that are common to all isolated reserves. One can see trends of housing types as different contracts are awarded and designs utilized year by year to try and keep up with the insatiable demand. The condition of the houses varies widely depending on the condition of the occupants. There are very very few housed to be found that are more than 20 years old as they simply do not last that long on reserves.

Below are some typical houses on the reserve. Most are of modest size, simple and functional.


Now the above pictures are of standard houses on the reserve. Below is the exception that is invariably found on a reserve. The house below is likely that of the Chief or at least one of the Chief’s close friends or relatives. On almost every reserve one can find this disparity in housing provision as like it or not, corruption is rampant and the designation of housing falls directly to the Chief and council. A small group of large and often opulent houses can be found on almost every reserve. This one was not the most striking that I have seen in that regard but the house and yard below clearly surpass that being given to the typical band member.

One can see some of the frustration of band members when they are living with a large family crammed into a modest 700 square foot house while the Chief and friends enjoy large modern homes with nicely landscaped yards. This is one of the things that helps lead to the complete disregard for the condition of their own homes.

As band members do not actually own their own homes and their disposition is at the whim of the Chief and council, there is pretty much little to no incentive to perform any maintenance upon their houses. Why replace a window when you can’t own or sell the place? Why reshingle? Why maintain sewage piping or drainage?

Below it can be seen what happens when windows get broken on reserve housing.

Poly can be used.

 Tuck tape can be used.

  Most commonly boards are used.

 With no work being done to maintain them, houses deteriorate very quickly. With a very harsh Northern climate, this problem is even more acute.

One can always find houses in their final state of disrepair  yet still occupied to demonstrate the housing problems on reserves. The only real variable is where the finger of blame gets pointed.

A very common sight on all reserves are seeing relatively new houses boarded up and abandoned as they have become uninhabitable. Mold and fire are the most common causes. These houses are essentially destroyed from the inside out due to lack of maintenance and respect for the house itself. These are everywhere.

The anger, disrespect and social challenges lead to having to turn all band services buildings into small fortresses to protect them from vandalism and break ins. This too is common of pretty much all reserves.

All of the buildings have barred windows or heavy rolling shutters along with heavy iron doors. At the least this must be psychologically disturbing to residents.

Getting back to my initial point, the problem on these reserves is not for lack of funding. New houses are being constructed (at great expense in isolated communities) all the time. It is nearly impossible to keep up with the destruction however.


We see a great deal of hysteria finger pointing when Canadian reserve conditions come to light. Most Canadians are urban living and have never had opportunity or need to actually spend time on reserves in person. This leaves many people vulnerable to such myths as that of Canada not directing enough resources towards reserve housing. That is why I hope that providing a pictoral posting helps people see a little more and understand just how it is on these reserves.

It is without doubt that there is housing crisis on Canadian reserves. There is no denying that there are countless other social and economic challenges being endured by reserve natives. The question is not whether or not current conditions are acceptable. The question is how to change this.

My conclusion is to work towards a complete end to the reserve system and rescinding the Indian Act. Decades have pretty much proven that this current path is an utter failure that is only causing human suffering at great expense to the rest of the nation.

Some people indeed may have a case to make on fixing the system as it is. I look forward to seeing some more creative solutions.

To claim that not enough resources have been directed to Canadian reserves however is shallow and simply wrong. These are a deeply troubled people and the capacity for them to consume resources is infinite with no visible sign of progress. The entire system must change.

We need to stop looking at the past and trying to somehow use it as an excuse to justify the mess we are enduring presently. The status-quo is serving nobody aside from some chiefs and many overpaid, parasitic bureaucrats and lawyers who make their living in the “Indian industry”. We need to recognize that the status-quo is not sustainable and we need to honestly look at how to work towards a better future.

I hope that more people begin to look more deeply at these issues so that we may begin to make real progress on this. It truly is a shame that we have so many people living like this in a land so blessed with resources.

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