Aboriginal Peoples

There are three constitutionally recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada: First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Since the middle of the 1800’s, Canadian law has defined who is entitled to be registered as an Indian under the Indian Act and who is thus entitled to the benefits of the Indian Act such as on-reserve schooling, financial assistance with higher education, health services and housing. The federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (hereinafter DIAND) maintains the Indian Register, the official list of "status Indians". Despite constitutional recognition of Métis, Inuit and First Nations Aboriginal peoples, only First Nation Aboriginals are recognized by the federal government as "status Indians". The designation of "status" under the Indian Act is double-edged. The Indian Act is experienced and perceived by many Aboriginals as racist and disenfranchising. At the same time, those considered "status Indians" by the federal government are entitled to the benefits of the Indian Act which has included on-reserve housing programs and other economic and social benefits, albeit inadequate.

Though not subject to the racist and disenfranchising impacts of the Indian Act, Inuit and Métis women, men and children do not benefit from some of the entitlements that may be legally entrenched in the Act or other federal fiduciary obligations. For example, unlike other Aboriginal groups who have specific agreements stipulated by The Indian Act, Inuit [and Métis] do not live on reserves and have to compete with other non-aboriginal Canadians for scarce social housing.

Overview of Aboriginal Housing and Living Conditions


Inuit Women and Housing

There are approximately 50,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across the Arctic regions of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. These communities are small, isolated and have chronic high unemployment rates. According to the 1996 census, approximately 5% of Aboriginal women are Inuit.

Inuit are currently facing the worst housing crisis in Canada. While the crisis can be traced back over 40 years, when the federal government began moving Inuit into permanent communities to increase access to government services including housing, the situation has become critical, as the Inuit population is rapidly increasing and housing stocks are eroding. Inuit are living in severely overcrowded, inadequate and unsafe housing conditions. Overcrowded housing is widely considered among Inuit to be the most serious problem they face.

Because Inuit do not have "status" under the Indian Act, they are compelled to compete with other non-aboriginal Canadians for social housing. This has had devastating effects on their housing conditions. In 1993, the federal government eliminated its portion of cost-shared funds to the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT), the Government of Quebec and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador for the construction of the new social housing units. Despite vigorous protests by Inuit representatives and promises to rectify the situation from the federal government, funding for social housing has not been reinstated. The high cost of private rental market housing in Arctic regions (eg: $2,500/month in Rankin Inlet, $7,560/year for fuel costs in Inuit communities in Labrador) coupled with the high percentage of Inuit living in poverty, makes the need for social housing acute. As it stands, for Inuit across Canada, demand for social housing far exceeds supply and Inuit are kept on long waiting lists for subsidized housing.

The housing conditions in Nunavut are particularly severe. In Nunavut, 44 per cent or over 3,500 households are in core need of housing compared to 14 per cent of households in core need in southern Canada. There is no private rental housing market and at present over 1,000 families are on the housing waiting list. An estimated 260 new names per year over the next five years will be added to the list. Nunavut Housing Corporation officials estimate that the territory will need over 2,500 new homes to meet its housing needs. The cold arctic climate means that "street" homelessness is frequently impossible to survive, making severe overcrowding a common reality. The federal government has made a tentative proposal to the Territories to provide some funding for the construction of new units, but the proposal is regarded as grossly inadequate, especially in light of the high cost of building in Nunavut.

The average number of persons per room in Inuit households across Canada is more than twice the national average. Though similar statistical information is not available from Labrador, it is widely accepted among Inuit that housing conditions in Labrador the worst in Canada. Beyond overcrowding, many Inuit houses lack basic facilities including running water and indoor plumbing which contributes to increased incidence of communicable diseases, increased infant mortality and shorter life spans for many Inuit.

The housing supplied to the permanent Inuit communities by the federal government has been both inadequate and culturally inappropriate. Traditionally, Inuit lived in small, nomadic family-based groups. The government housing has failed to accommodate larger families and extended family members, nor is it suitable for cultural practices such as dressing large carcasses or the need for easily accessible outdoor storage areas.

Prior to 1993 limited economic development opportunities and the high costs of housing construction and maintenance, combined with a very small private housing market, led the government to increase its role in social housing in the North. However, the supply of housing has never met the demand.

Inuit women are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the housing crisis which exacerbates other social problems with which women must contend. Inuit women wishing to leave abusive and violent relationships face innumerable obstacles. Social pressure can cause many women to conceal the violence in the home for long periods. Some Inuit women may be dependent on their spouses or partners for financial support and/or housing. The virtual absence of vacant units and the overcrowding of existing housing in almost all communities means that there are very few places for women to turn for temporary shelter. The homes of family and friends are likely to be as crowded as the one the woman wants to leave. Many women find themselves forced to remain in a dangerous home situation.

Most communities are without shelters and a woman who decides to leave an abusive situation may also have to leave her community. Leaving a community is replete with obstacles as well. The high cost of air travel is one of the largest barriers. If a woman is unable to pay these costs she will have to persuade a social worker or community worker that she is in danger and must leave for her own safety. In small communities that service provider may also be a member of the family and therefore may be reluctant to arrange transportation.

First Nations Women and Housing

On-Reserve Housing

If the necessity of inter-governmental agreement and joint action may sometimes create obstacles to federal action in other areas of housing and homelessness, this cannot be said of Aboriginal housing, for which the federal government has undisputed constitutional responsibility as well as fiduciary duties emanating from treaty agreements. Yet while the federal government acknowledges the desperate housing and living conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada as a clear violation of fundamental human rights, there has been little sign of the urgent action in partnership with Aboriginal people consistently urged upon Canada by United Nations human rights committees as well as by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

In 1999-2000, 43% of on-reserve dwellings were inadequate. While aboriginal communities across Canada have different standards of housing depending on the relative wealth of the community, on-reserve housing can be characterized as largely in need of repair, and lacking fully operational bathrooms, central heating, and potable water. Generally it is significantly overcrowded and has resulted in the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Of the 74,000 households on reserves, approximately 43% (32,000 units) receive social assistance. Close to 60% of Aboriginal households "rent" band-owned housing, though in many cases they do not pay rent. It is estimated that at least 30,000 more dwellings are needed on reserves to meet demand.

While these conditions are experienced by all those living on-reserve, they have a disparate impact on Aboriginal women because of the central role they play in all aspects of their households and communities. Grossly inadequate housing such as that found on reserves makes it difficult for women to survive, let alone secure and maintain employment, maintain their own health, well being and development as well as that of other family members, ensure children have a place to do their homework, engage in cultural practices and so on.

Federal Housing Programs

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is the major federal housing developer, provider and administrator of on-reserve housing. CMHC subsidizes social housing including non-profit housing and cooperative housing by covering the gap between actual operating costs and revenues received from tenants or cooperative members. In 1994, CMHC social housing represented 20% of the total on-reserve housing stock. The government reduced the number of new, fully financed homes on-reserve by more than half, from 1,800 in 1991 to a mere 700 in 1995. Similarly, in 1991, 1,200 units were repaired through CMHC assistance, in 1995 the number was 600. Of the 32,000 households on reserves in receipt of social assistance, only 10,000 are in CMHC-subsidized social housing and receive shelter allowances. CMHC statistics do not indicate what proportion of female lone parents are currently in those units, however, given that just under 1/3 of social assistance recipients are in subsidized housing, we can assume that while some sole support women may have the benefits of these units, many do not.

CMHC administers a number of other housing programs on reserves including the Shelter Enhancement Program (SEP). SEP assists in repairing, rehabilitating and improving existing shelters for women and children and youth who are victims of family violence and to assist in the acquisition and construction of new shelters and second stage housing where needed. Funding is mainly directed to existing facilities, though some funding is available for the creation of new spaces, or acquisition of existing spaces for emergency or second-stage housing. This could be a particularly valuable program in light of Aboriginal women’s experiences of violence.

The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) provides funding for housing on reserves in the form of subsidies for capital costs, certain operating costs for people in receipt of social assistance, and program administration costs borne by First Nations communities. Capital expenditures by DIAND on Aboriginal housing programs were capped in 1982-83 at $93 million and have not increased since. According to RCAP, the subsidies provided by DIAND "can buy just over half of what they could" in 1983. DIAND also provides some subsidies for construction of new homes and for the rehabilitation and repair of older homes, however, the subsidies are set far below reasonable costs. Even if these program funds were set at adequate levels they would be of little assistance to Aboriginal women, the vast majority of whom have no access to homeownership.

DIAND also provides subsidies for debt servicing (‘shelter allowances’) to households in receipt of social assistance.


Particular Issues of Importance to First Nations Women

  1. Returning to Reserves

    Prior to 1985 the Indian Act dictated that Aboriginal women lost their status if they married non-status men. In 1985 with the passage of Bill C-31, Canada amended the Indian Act such that marriage now has no implications on the Indian status of either spouse. In addition, the amendments reinstated status to the Aboriginal women who had lost status through the old law’s provisions. As of June 1995, the amended Act allowed for the restoration of Indian status to 95,429 persons close to 60% (60,000) of whom were women. In many instances, however, when re-instated Aboriginal women have attempted to return to their reserves they have been prevented from doing so, because their Bands would not grant them membership and provide them with on-reserve housing.

    The Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network of B.C., have documented evidence of Band discrimination against Bill C-31 reinstated women and their families. The discrimination experienced by these women has included exclusion from Band membership, denial of residency and housing on reserve, and discrimination with respect to educational and health funding. Some Bands and Aboriginal organizations have suggested that Bill C-31 reinstated women were denied housing, at least in part, because of lack of sufficient supply. They assert that the federal government did not increase resource allocations to bands for on-reserve housing, health and education at a level that corresponds with the increased population caused by Bill C-31.

  2. Matrimonial Property

Aboriginal women on reserves face particular disadvantage upon marriage dissolution. Amongst most married couples, as a result of cultural and legal precedents, it is more likely that the male partner possesses on-reserve properties under law. According to the Supreme Court of Canada, a woman cannot apply for or receive one-half the interest in on-reserve property for which her husband holds a certificate of possession under the Indian Act; she may only receive an award of compensation to replace her half-interest in such properties. This puts Aboriginal women at a serious disadvantage because possession of on-reserve land is an important factor in individuals’ ability to live on-reserve and receive attendant benefits.

As a result of the Indian Act, interim exclusive possession of the matrimonial home has also been deemed inapplicable to women whose matrimonial home is on reserve. In turn, Aboriginal women facing domestic violence who do not hold the certificate of possession to the matrimonial home often must choose between remaining in an abusive situation or seeking housing off-reserve away from their community, kin and networks of support.

Off-Reserve Housing

Because of abject poverty on reserves, many Aboriginal people move to and live in urban centers in search of economic and educational opportunities and to be closer to medical services. Because many Aboriginal women cannot access on-reserve housing, and because of their experiences on-reserve of discrimination, violence and disempowerment, Aboriginal women outnumber Aboriginal men in urban centres.

Across Canada there are about 10,000 off-reserve Aboriginal subsidized housing units providing homes to about 35,000 people. Conditions off-reserve are not much better than conditions on reserve, with 32.5% of the Aboriginal population living in deep poverty and core housing need (63,000 households or 1 in 3 families) . According to RCAP, the "core problem in urban centres is the lack of supply of inexpensive, adequate housing from the private sector coupled with discrimination by private landlords."

Discrimination in accessing accommodation is a problem particularly noted by women who participated in the Royal Commission. One woman reported:

I have been denied housing because of my skin colour. I have been denied housing because I am a single mom. Being a Native and being a single mom really is discouraging because you can’t get anywhere; you have that double whammy put on you.

Federal Housing Programs

Under the Urban Native Non-Profit Housing Program (UNH) CMHC subsidizes the difference between the housing organization’s revenues from rents and its operating costs. These units are unique because they are predominantly owned and operated by Aboriginals and they have been developed and designed in a culturally sensitive manner. Today there are over 100 urban Aboriginal housing institutions responsible for over 10,000 federally subsidized units. Federal government funding for new units under this program ceased in 1993 and waiting lists are now extremely long. Moreover, most of the housing stock is quite old and as a result, repair and maintenance costs are a real concern. In November 1999 CMHC, on behalf of the federal government, signed an agreement to transfer most of its social housing programs, including the UNH to the provinces.. Though CMHC has assured Aboriginal housing institutions that provincial governments will respect original agreements, this is not certain.

Aboriginals are also eligible for general social housing programs. However, there are not nearly enough units to meet households in need. Even if units were available, many Aboriginal people are reluctant to seek subsidized housing in non-Aboriginal run housing projects because housing is strongly linked to their culture. Further, Aboriginal applicants for housing experience wide spread discrimination in both private and non-profit housing.

Métis Women and Housing

Métis are distinct Aboriginal peoples, born from the marriages of Cree, Ojibwa and Salteaux women to French and Scottish fur traders, beginning in the mid 1600s. Métis communities emerged and are still found in provinces and territories across Canada.

According to the most recent statistics available, 25% of all Aboriginal women are Métis. Close to 70% of Métis live in urban areas in Canada, with the largest concentration of Métis women in Alberta and Manitoba. Like the Inuit, Métis are not covered by the Indian Act. This means that the federal government assumes no jurisdiction with respect to Métis and the Métis, therefore, derive no benefits that might attach to such designation.

To our knowledge, no research has been carried out to document and assess the housing and income support needs of Métis women. However, because Métis women are most likely to be living in urban areas, we can assume that their experiences are similar to those of off-reserve First Nations women, characterized by poverty, inadequate and unaffordable housing and discrimination.


1) The right to adequate housing should be recognized by the federal government as an Aboriginal treaty right, arising from the Federal government’s fiduciary responsibility with respect to Aboriginal peoples. To this end, the federal government has an obligation to clarify with treaty nations a modern understanding of existing treaty terms as they apply to housing. Governments also have an obligation to ensure that Aboriginal women, men and children have adequate shelter, and short and long term means to provide for their own housing needs.

2) If the Indian Act is to remain, it must be amended to remove all discrimination against Aboriginal women and their children. This must be done in consultation with Aboriginal women and representative organizations.

3) There is a real need for more research which specifically investigates and documents Aboriginal women’s housing and living conditions and which develops Aboriginal women-specific recommendations. Federal and provincial/territorial governments as well as band councils responsible for Aboriginal housing and funders must provide the necessary resources to Aboriginal women’s organizations to undertake such research.

4) Across the country mainstream organizations and networks are undertaking a variety of activities to demand federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to address the housing crisis across Canada. These mainstream organizations and networks must work harder to ensure that Aboriginal women’s groups are informed of and included in these activities and sought as partners for collaborative activities.

5) Aboriginal women have used the Charter in a limited way to enforce their equality rights. This avenue of recourse could be pursued further as a means of improving their housing and living conditions and the discrimination they suffer both on and off reserve. To the extent that they are not already doing so, Aboriginal women should pursue international human rights enforcement mechanisms such as the complaints procedures available under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to address their experiences of discrimination with respect to property rights upon marriage dissolution and other experiences of discrimination.

6) Federal and provincial/territorial governments as well as band councils responsible for housing must respond to the specific housing and income issues experienced by Aboriginal women living on and off reserves. This would include: earmarking funds for the construction of new units specifically for Aboriginal women on and off-reserve that are culturally appropriate and that accommodate families of different sizes; ensuring that all Aboriginal women have sufficient funds (perhaps through a portable shelter allowance financed by the Federal government) to access existing and new housing stock on and off reserve; and allocating existing housing stock in a non-discriminatory fashion, prioritizing those in need.

7) The recommendations for future action articulated in Pauktuutit’s report, Inuit Women: The Housing Crisis and Violence must be implemented immediately. These recommendations include:

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Chapter 4