Addressing Canada’s Indigenous Housing Shortage

Addressing Canada’s Indigenous Housing Shortage

Addressing Canada’s Indigenous Housing Shortage

Canada has a significant and persistent shortage of housing in northern Indigenous communities. The problem is referenced in the 2019 Report by the United Nations Assembly General on Adequate Housing, which recommends that “States should, as a matter of priority, address the abhorrent housing conditions of Indigenous peoples”. The housing conditions included in the report for Canada, identify significant barriers for many northern communities. Over 25% of Indigenous people on reserve share multi-generation, overcrowded housing conditions. Often these dwellings have substandard water, poor sewage treatment facilities and are in need of major repairs. The housing gap requires the construction of about 11,000 houses annually.

Cargo airships could provide a cost effective and rapid means of closing this housing gap. Service 12 months per year of truckload weights by airship would cut lead times for the construction of high-quality homes in the North. Cargo airships could significantly reduce the cost of bring in building materials and extend the construction seasons from a few summer months to year-round operations.

Many communities are starting to use a form of modular housing for residential accommodation and services. Currently these structures are delivered mainly to reserves that are connected to existing road infrastructure. Modular houses have been moved over winter roads, but with considerable difficulty, cost and often damage.

modular homes

Airships have the ability to move modular housing and heavy, bulky and indivisible pieces of cargo, like roof trusses and septic tanks. Factory-built moveable houses weigh between 35 and 40 pounds per square foot (~175kg/m2). As an example, a 900 square foot (83.9 m2) house would weigh 14.6 metric tons. A 30-ton lift airship could carry two modules at a time. Loads can be slung beneath the airship, or carried inside the belly that has significant space.

Depending on the size and materials used, the foundations for a dwelling can weigh more than the building itself. In the North, where construction often involves permafrost soils and bedrock close to the surface, housing is more often built on piles with a crawl space rather than a full basement. Consequently, foundations could also be prefabricated and delivered for installation.

The degree of housing shortage and building deterioration on northern reserves presents a serious health concern. Dilapidated homes, often with leaking roofs, mould contamination in the walls and poor ventilation can contribute to the development of chronic respiratory illnesses. In some cases, moulds appear in the building materials prior to home construction. Arriving during the winter, materials may get wet during shipment over the ice road and are often stored with minimal protection before use. Most houses take at least two years to assemble on site. Stretching construction over two winter road seasons increases the opportunity for moulds to grow because moisture and dampness are given more opportunity to seep into the building’s structure.

About 40% of all on-reserve housing is classified as inadequate or unsuitable, often requiring major structural repairs to the electrical system, plumbing, walls, ceilings and floors. Repairs to homes are difficult because the reserves lack skilled tradespeople, and materials (drywall, trusses, shingles etc.) are not available for purchase from local stores. Materials and skilled labour must be brought in from metropolitan centres in the south.

Inadequate housing affects the well-being of families and contributes to both mental and physical health difficulties. The problems of overcrowding, food insecurity, lack of local healthcare and unsuitable housing are highlighted as the causes of Indigenous vulnerability to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is made more deadly by pre-existing conditions of diabetes that affects one in four indigenous people, and tuberculosis that is returning as a serious communicable illness in the North. The degree of overcrowding, as illustrated in the figure below, means that too many houses have someone sleeping in their living room.

Proportion of First Nations (FN) people, Inuit and Metis living in Overcrowded Housing

Currently, the Canadian Federal Government spends about $319 M annually to support the construction and renovation of housing for the Indigenous peoples. On average about 2,000 new houses are built on reserves across Canada each year, but the housing gap continues to grow. Of the 97,500 houses on reserve, 31,595 houses were identified as inadequate, or in ‘ASB (adequacy-and suitability -based) housing need’ in 2019. Half of these houses are over 40 years old and should likely be replaced, due to deterioration.

The cost-effectiveness of the funding that is available for new housing is diminished by the high cost of building in remote areas. The need to ship almost all large or heavy building materials overland using trucks on winter roads (or by sea lift for coastal communities) and the requirement to import skilled tradespeople into the communities, greatly increases the time and cost of construction. A modest home in the North costs as much as a larger upscale house built in the South.

The situation is predicted to worsen because of the rapid population growth and the increasing impact of climate change on the winter road networks. Remote communities across Canada have already lost half the useful season of the winter roads. Despite efforts to relocate roads off the lakes, and to build wooden bridges across rivers, the trend towards a shortening winter road season continues. As the need to bring in more materials increases, the reliability of the roads continues to deteriorate.

An operational plan to supply building materials, ‘home kits’ and/or modular homes to remote northern reserves would start with the establishment of a network of transshipment points that would serve the surrounding area. The materials would be moved by truck or rail to these transshipment gateways for relocation by airship, as identified on the map of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. Most of these remote indigenous settlements are within 200 to 300 kilometers flying distance from the transshipment points. An airship that is designed to fly at 140 kilometers per hour, and load/off-load in one hour, could schedule up to four flights daily into the communities.

In addition to these southern First Nations communities, housing and building materials could be delivered to the Inuit settlements of Nunavut via the railway to the Port of Churchill, Manitoba.

Past experience shows that airships can obtain about the same utilization as airplanes, which could range up to 300 days per year. The pent-up demand for housing in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario is sufficient to keep an airship busy for about 7.5 years, just moving modular housing to close the existing Indigenous housing gap. Given the cargo space provided by regularly scheduled airship services, communities are likely to request other necessities to be shipped as well, including; food, fuel and general supplies. Additional building materials would be required for other community infrastructure projects, like schools and clinics.

Requirements for these additional services and supplies will also provide economic opportunities in these communities. Jobs would be needed in the building trades, as well as ground crews, pilots, mechanics and drivers for logistics companies. The development of services industry supplying regularly scheduled cargo transport will be transformative for northern communities.

The use of cargo airships to move large heavy freight to the North throughout the year, provides a means of closing the housing gap that is both cost effective and rapid. The airship is a transportation solution that would significantly reduce the cost and lead time for production and installation of high-quality homes. When communities in the North are able to provide better housing for their residents, families will be happier and current social and health issues will improve.

1 Page 24, United Nations General Assembly Report on Adequate Housing

2 For example, Atco Structures or Stack Modular/Bird Construction partnership,

3 Spinu, Oana and Jordan Wapass. “Addressing the causes of Indigenous vulnerability to pandemics—not just the symptoms.” The Conference Board of Canada. March 26, 2020

4 Lgui, Brahim. (2019) Housing Conditions of On-Reserve Aboriginal Households. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Socio Economic Analysis, Housing Needs and Conditions, July 2019.

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