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Reserve reaching out to help others build homes

Nine homes have been built on Fort William First Nation and 11 more are scheduled to be completed this spring.
Contractors, all of whom are Fort William First Nation band members, are currently working on developing 11 homes on the reserve, with nine currently completed. Construction is scheduled to be completed this spring.

Fort William First Nation’s housing developments are proving to be so successful administration is considering a plan to help fellow reserves with the process from funding to post move-in supports for families.

The First Nation’s latest neighbourhood has seen nine homes completed and is preparing for 11 more, bringing the total to 20 new family dwellings. It’s a feat that Ian J. Bannon, the band’s director of lands and property management, said is due much in part to the excellent track record it has managing properties and helping families settle.

He stressed that families for these homes are not pre-approved. A call for applications will go out in the near future. 

The building project was started two years ago. This latest phase is employing 11 contractors, all band members, an important aspect as it is they who understand the logistics of building in their community, as well as creating a self-sustaining economic base within the community.

Current construction includes prep work, digging trenches to water, sewer and electrical, as well as putting foundations and insulation in place before the ground freezes so contractors can get to work building frames. 

“They will be building through the winter, so they will be ready for families to move in next year,” said Bannon. “It’s just starting now, a bit of a late start, but we all agreed that the project will go ahead, then take the appropriate measures to accommodate the cold weather.”

The project is also an opportunity for training for the contractors, he said, as well as a source of short-term income. While they are all band members and independent construction contractors, Bannon explained the band makes sure all of them are certified through the WSIB, as they are all hiring staff to help them complete the project.

To secure funding for these new homes, the band has to work with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Bannon explained there is a special set of regulations for on-reserve non-profit housing, called Section 95 On-Reserve Non-Profit Housing Program.

It stipulates that a band’s administration must determine how many homes it wants to build and includes forms and spreadsheets to help the band calculate how much it would cost and how much of that cost it can carry on its own.

Variables factored in include building codes, cost of materials, and alternate ways to build. Whenever a reserve is approved for funding for a set number of homes, the band’s administration is expected to pay back a portion. 

To be approved for all the funding requested, the band has to demonstrate it can pay that back or it will have difficulty getting approved for all the housing funding it asks for.

“The CMHC wants their money back,” he said. “It seems like an easy formula to follow, but we see other bands across the nation struggling, while Fort William succeeds. We want to know why that is.

“We are planning on creating a formula all reserves can use to help them gain access to Section 95.”

Fort William First Nation has been exceptional in their housing endeavours, Bannon said. They have received multiple funding approvals with little to no issues. 

In the end, he said, it will help all of the country’s reserves better themselves by building strong, stable communities.

He pointed out much of the struggle has to do with individual economics of the reserves. Fort William has a strong economic base with their on-reserve businesses and close proximity to other business centres like Thunder Bay.

While there are many factors at play, he said housing has been a chronic problem on reserves and has to be taken seriously if the federal government and individual bands want to improve their communities.  

With more than 30 years of experience in housing management in the Thunder Bay region, Bannon said he is taking his experience to help ensure families on the reserve, and beyond, can settle efficiently and have needed supports for their living situation.

“Building the home is great, but then what happens after the family moves in? There have been families from remote reserves, many single mothers, escaping abusive situations that have come here and they receive housing, but not much help to transition from life up there to the city,” he said.

“The noise, congestion, fast pace and so much more can be overwhelming, plus taking care of their home.

“It’s an overlooked aspect to helping people settle and learn about their responsibilities as homeowners. If we can do more to have supports to help them ease into their new living situation, they will be comfortable, and eventually be productive members of the community.”

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