Evidence of meeting #8 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was métis.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Bindu Bonneau  Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.
Robert Byers  President and Chief Executive Officer, Namerind Housing Corporation
Damon Johnston  President, Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg
Julia Christensen  Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy, Memorial University, As an Individual

7:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Namerind Housing Corporation

Robert Byers

I believe so. When I look at the 63 designated communities that get this funding, it seems to go pretty smoothly, at least from our viewpoint. I don't know what it's like from Service Canada—

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

No, we're good. I don't hear complaints.

December 1st, 2020 / 7:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Namerind Housing Corporation

Robert Byers

For us it's like a dream, but as soon as we involve the province, then it takes another path—

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

I hear you.

7:30 p.m.

President and Chief Executive Officer, Namerind Housing Corporation

Robert Byers

—and it's not always easy.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

Madame Bonneau, I have a quick question.

The distinctions-based funding to the Métis Nation, the $500 million that was pledged two years ago in the budget, is that where you draw the allotment you get for the housing you provide?

7:30 p.m.

Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.

Bindu Bonneau

No, we receive funding from Alberta Seniors and Housing.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

You receive money through the federal-provincial transfer.

7:30 p.m.

Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.

Bindu Bonneau

That's correct. We have two organizations under Métis Urban Housing. We receive funding from Alberta Seniors and Housing under operating agreements. The money that we receive from Métis Nation of Alberta is distributed to Métis Capital Housing Corporation, and we have some programs there through which we provide services to our citizens.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

Would you feel more secure with a distinct funding stream from the federal government that included repair dollars, construction dollars and subsidy and operating agreements as a single funding source, as opposed to having to rely on multiple programs out of the province?

7:30 p.m.

Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.

Bindu Bonneau

That is correct.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

Okay.

7:30 p.m.

Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.

Bindu Bonneau

That would give us more control over how we spend and disburse money.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

Just to be clear, your operating agreement is held by the province, so if you're at risk of losing it, it's a provincial government decision that could cost you that program.

7:30 p.m.

Senior Director, Operations, Métis Urban Housing Corporation of Alberta Inc.

Bindu Bonneau

That is correct.

7:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Vaughan, and thank you, Ms. Bonneau.

We've reached the end of the hour for this panel.

Mr. Byers and Ms. Bonneau, thank you so much for the work that you do in your respective provinces. Thank you for your testimony here with us. It will be of significant value to our work and to our study. We as a government and as parliamentarians look forward to working with you and seeing you again. You're free to disconnect.

We'll suspend, colleagues, for a couple of minutes while we do a sound check on the next couple of witnesses, and then we'll be back.

We are suspended.

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

We are back in session.

I'd like to welcome our witnesses: Dr. Julia Christensen, associate professor and Canada research chair in northern governance and public policy from Memorial University in the fine province of Newfoundland and Labrador; and Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg.

Dr. Christensen, you have five minutes.

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

Adam Vaughan Liberal Spadina—Fort York, ON

Mr. Chair, I have a point of order.

I recognize that Larry Wucherer, who is one of the leaders in indigenous housing in Winnipeg, passed away recently. I want to pay my respects on behalf of the committee and my colleagues to Mr. Johnston and to all the Winnipeg indigenous housing providers, who have had to struggle with COVID but also with the loss of such a strong voice. I want to make sure that you know we understand the challenges you face and the pain that you've suffered recently. I want to acknowledge that.

7:35 p.m.

Damon Johnston President, Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg

Thank you very much, Mr. Vaughan.

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Mr. Vaughan.

Dr. Christensen, you have five minutes for your opening remarks.

7:35 p.m.

Dr. Julia Christensen Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Northern Governance and Public Policy, Memorial University, As an Individual

Good evening, and thank you, Mr. Chair and standing committee, for the opportunity to speak on such an important issue as urban, rural and northern indigenous housing.

My name is Julia Christensen, and I hold a Canada research chair in northern governance and public policy at Memorial University. I'm joining you remotely from beautiful St. John's, which is situated on the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk. It is also a city, a place of significance for Inuit, Innu and Mi'kmaq from across the province. I myself was born and raised on Chief Drygeese territory in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

Over the past 14 years, I have researched, collaborated and written extensively on northern housing, homelessness, rural-urban mobility and the social determinants of health. I'm also the project director for At Home in the North, a CMHC and SSHRC-funded partnership under Canada's collaborative housing research network.

Today I wish to speak with you about the persistent northern housing crisis and the ways in which it underlines the emergence of hidden and visible forms of homelessness in northern Canada. When we talk about the northern housing crisis, we are in reality talking about a chronic housing need that has persisted since the first northern housing programs were rolled out in the mid-20th century.

Northern housing, therefore, has been defined from the beginning by inadequacy and unaffordability. It's this landscape of housing need that underlies the persistence of overcrowding, couch surfing and hidden homelessness, particularly in northern hamlets and villages, and has thus pushed a significant number of family homes into acting as de facto shelters.

However, I also want to bring attention to the ways in which the northern housing crisis manifests itself in northen towns and cities. All too often, the particular housing challenges faced by northern towns and cities are overlooked because their population size and density do not look conventionally urban. However, they serve many of the same roles as cities in southern Canada, acting as administrative, economic, transportation and social and health service hubs for vast northern regions.

Since the late 1990s, visible homelessness has emerged as a significant social concern in territorial capitals as well as regional centres across the provincial north.

In my own research, intergenerational trauma related to residential school and the child welfare system is cited as a key social determinant of health that has had adverse affects on access to and sustainability of northern housing options. Moreover, point-in-time counts and other studies at the community and regional scales have illustrated that the majority of men and women experiencing homelessness in northern urban centres have moved there from outlying smaller northern communities.

Core housing need in smaller northern communities, combined with a need for resources and supports available in northern urban centres, is a key factor that frames the rural-urban movement of northerners experiencing homelessness. Therefore, any comprehensive approach to understanding northern indigenous housing needs must take into account the dynamics of housing insecurity in smaller communities as well as regional centres, and the complex interconnections between the two, which include not just access to housing but also access to key social supports and health services.

In northern towns and cities, the public sector is often the main, if not the only, provider of affordable housing, yet the demand far exceeds the supply. Moreover, the bulk of public housing units are intended for families, and therefore units for single adults are incredibly limited. The private rental market thus becomes the main source of housing for low-income single adults. However, a confluence of factors, including rents that are among the highest in Canada and the dominance of a very small number of private rental companies in northern centres, means that affordable and accessible private rental options are often out of reach.

There is tremendous resiliency, innovation and hope, however. There have been some significant developments in the areas of Housing First and transitional housing through collaborations among territorial, municipal and indigenous governments in the non-profit sector. However, these programs are not designed or funded to be long-term supportive housing options, even though many residents of these programs, as well as the housing program providers, have identified that long-term supportive housing is needed for the vast majority of program users.

Another area of significant promise is the number of community-led housing programs that have been developed and implemented under indigenous community and regional self-governments. Examples of this can be found in Nunatsiavut, as well as through the K'asho Got'ine Housing Society in Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories. However, the resources available to communities differ widely, and there are struggles with chronic under-resourcing for effective and sustainable program delivery.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought chronic northern housing need under a harsh new light and has made it undeniable that housing is health care. Funding has been quickly dedicated to temporarily house the homeless in emergency and overflow shelters, supportive housing and managed alcohol programs, or hotel rooms.

Many of these measures are temporary. There is an urgent need to support northern indigenous peoples and communities in self-determining northern housing strategies that ensure we learn from the pandemic, cultivate real and sustainable change, and do not simply return to the status quo.

Thank you. Marsi. Nakurmiik.

7:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Dr. Christensen.

Mr. Johnston, you have five minutes, please.

7:40 p.m.

President, Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg

Damon Johnston

Thank you.

Good evening, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, and a special thank you to Ms. Gazan, our MP here from Winnipeg, for giving me the opportunity to speak with you tonight.

For my part, I'm going to focus my comments primarily—and probably in total—on the urban indigenous housing experience. I've lived off reserve all my life. I'm 73 years old, and I've been involved in the community as a leader in Ontario, in British Columbia and in Manitoba.

On the housing front, I would never take the position that the need, as expressed by Dr. Christensen.... It's there. It's in the north. It's specific to first nations reserves. It's specific to Métis and to Inuit. It's also very important to the historic urban community, which really developed as indigenous charitable not-for-profit organizations in every city in Canada, and in some towns as well. Here in Winnipeg, that's been over 60 years in the making.

One of our largest housing groups here is Kinew Housing. It's a true urban indigenous housing not-for-profit. I also had a hand in Aiyawin Housing, which no longer exists. Before it left the scene, it had developed over 300 units under the old urban native housing program of the CMHC. Because of the history I have, I will say that ever since CMHC got out of that program, it's never been the same for indigenous housing off reserve. It's a shame. The population here in Winnipeg is projected to grow to 114,000 by next year's census. It's the youngest, fastest-growing population. It's a population with some of the highest need for housing anywhere.

We need innovative approaches to housing for indigenous peoples that can come from us. An example is a project that we're just starting here now for homeless persons in Winnipeg. We call it “the village”. We're going to place 24 units on our property—I am the co-chair of Thunderbird House and also the interim executive director—specifically designed to house individuals struggling with homelessness. We know that many of them have mental health or addictions issues.

This housing will be made out of containers. It will cost about $60,000 per unit. It's a very cost-effective approach. The units will be virtually indestructible. Then we're building all kinds of community supports around these individuals. We're dealing with issues of safety. We're going to have interventions for those addictions—alcohol, drugs and all those things. We're working with the Winnipeg Police Service on the safety side, and with Mama Bear Clan. This is a very holistically thought-out project that evidences the real capacity of urban indigenous citizens to come together, primarily via their urban indigenous charitable not-for-profits.

In that vein, we've brought almost 25 of these organizations into a new urban collaborative called the Winnipeg Indigenous Executive Circle, and now we are part of 32 urban coalitions in Canada. We were in Toronto last year, together as urban groups. We had the United Nations special rapporteur on housing. We were meeting to strongly encourage the federal government to work with us to develop a separate urban indigenous housing strategy.

It doesn't have to be either/or. The current distinctions-based and nation-to-nation process with the federal government between AFN, MNC and ITK does not enable the participation of urban voice, but urban voice, urban experience, is legitimate.

In Winnipeg, as I said, we have over 60 years of experience in developing a myriad of programs and services for indigenous individuals who have moved to cities, who continue to move to cities and who, when they get here, often fall through the cracks and end up homeless. They're coming without educational credentials. They can't get jobs. They're not accustomed to living in a city, and they quickly fall prey to many different types of predation, such as gangs and all those things.

I came back to Winnipeg in 1983 and I've been here since then, except for a two-year hiatus in Vancouver from 2005 to 2007. Winnipeg today is almost unrecognizable in terms of the growth in individuals who are struggling on the streets every day in the life of this city. I can tell you categorically that many of the newer, more innovative approaches to working with these individuals—the most marginalized, the most vulnerable—are now being led by indigenous leaders in this city.

We turned End Homelessness Winnipeg into an indigenous organization, and we have a new five-year plan, but we're working with all the non-indigenous organizations as well. Once COVID—

I'm sorry. I guess I have to stop.

Thank you very much for hearing me out.

7:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

You're well past time, but you'll get a lot of chances to expand upon your message through the questions. I am sure of that.

We're going to start with those questions now, beginning with Mr. Kent, please, for six minutes.

7:45 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Kent Conservative Thornhill, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Welcome, Dr. Christensen and Mr. Johnston.

I'll start with you, Mr. Johnston. I'm looking at the End Homelessness Winnipeg website, and your goals are quite clear. They speak to maintaining and improving existing accommodations and acquiring private market rental rooming houses and single-room occupancy hotels.

You spoke of the Thunderbird project and this very innovative program for these very inexpensive individual units, which, I would guess, you're depending mightily on the City of Winnipeg bylaws to accommodate and to recognize as appropriate.

My first question is this: If the indigenous housing caucus's appeal for 73,000 units and $25 billion over 10 years is to be realized, what would you be looking for in the urban Winnipeg context in terms of the number of units that you actually need—and need as soon as possible?