Response to Garden River First Nation’s (GRFN) innovative housing plan has been so positive that the housing department has been scrambling just to keep up with demand.
“It's been almost too busy sometimes, just to get things out of the way,” said Anne Headrick, housing supervisor for Garden River located just east of Sault Ste. Marie. “But we've been able to do it and so it's nice to see that we have a few things going up.”
In April, the community was putting the finishing touches on a three-year, 10-unit housing project — a combination of duplexes and single-family dwellings — and on the cusp of launching its next build, a five-unit project.
The 10-unit project is being built in specific response to a lack of units for Elders and those with physical disabilities, and so the units will all be accessible so they can “live independently as long as they can,” Headrick said.
The community has additionally secured capital, through a new funding arrangement under the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), for renovations to existing community housing that is in dire need of upgrades.
Also in progress is a 10-year strategic plan, which Headrick expects will be ready to go this spring. It will guide the community and its housing needs for the next decade, to 2027.
Headrick said the housing department is considering a number of ventures, such as establishing a construction firm or purchasing homes outside of the community, but the plan will help first determine if they are viable.
“We have a lot of ideas out there from this strategic plan,” she said. “We’re hoping little business plans with come out of that.”
To keep up with demand, this year the housing department will add an administrative assistant to its division, bringing the department to five people.
With the hiring of a new employee and establishment of a strategic plan, Headrick said the department wants to be ready and able to take advantage of new projects when funding and opportunities present themselves.
“We’re really looking at our housing program as being a business and trying to be self-sustaining and looking at where we need to go, while also meeting the needs of our community,” she said. “Our community is growing, just like every other First Nation community in Canada, so we’re trying to meet those needs.”
Community need is what prompted a revamp of the housing department when Headrick took it over in 2011. At that time, the community’s housing strategy was outdated and not meeting the needs of its membership.
The renewed strategy earned the community the Community Housing Recognition Award during last year’s Northern First Nations Housing Conference, held annually in Thunder Bay.
The accolade captured the attention of other First Nations and community housing advocates, and over the last year, Headrick and her staff have been giving presentations across the province, providing mentorship to other communities.
“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people wanting to know what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, how is it working, how does it help,” Headrick said. “It’s quite exciting, and I feel like hopefully we’re helping other First Nations muddle through all those issues that they have.”
Headrick noted that Garden River is in a particularly good position, as it’s situated near to Sault Ste. Marie and Batchewana First Nation, in addition to being part of the North Shore Tribal Council, resulting in plenty of resources to call upon.
The housing department continues to use local labour and supplies as much as possible — trusses and subflooring are sourced from Garden River Truss, and skilled tradespeople are those who live and work in the community, who, in turn, hire local labourers.
“I think it’s important that if we’re doing all this stuff, we’re trying to keep it as local as possible, so that we can contribute in a positive way back to the community,” she said.
Headrick remains encouraged by the federal government’s proposed Federal Housing Strategy, which has been supplemented by the Assembly of First Nations’ own guidelines for a National First Nations Housing Strategy.
Political interest is making the issue of inadequate First Nations housing harder to ignore, said Headrick, who’s optimistic that work will finally start getting done to fix community housing issues.
“It’s almost impossible to get all of them, but we can start,” she said. “The model of how you handle one situation can be a model for handing a different situation. It’s out there; we just have to get the doers in there to actually do the stuff they’ve always been talking about.”