Holmes teamed up with the Assembly of First Nations in 2010 to create a pilot project on the Whitefish Lake First Nation west of Sudbury, Ont., to build energy-efficient, environmentally friendly homes and other infrastructure. The ongoing project also aims to develop trade skills for people living on reserves.
While recent attention has focused on the grim living conditions on the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario, the First Nations housing crisis extends far beyond just the James Bay community and has gone on for years.
For Holmes and others who want to move past the politicking and fingerpointing consuming much of the public debate around the issue, solutions lie in the willingness to embrace ideas others may want to dismiss out of hand.
Maybe we can make better choices about building materials that may initially be more expensive but last longer and won’t burn or be susceptible to mould.
Maybe we can consider buildings not based on a wood frame, such as steel shipping containers converted into comfortable homes.
And so on.
‘This is not hard’
“Let’s look at the building technology,” says Holmes, whose ideal First Nations home would be about 1,100 square feet and built with wood and other materials that won’t burn or be susceptible to mould.
“I don’t care if you want a box. I don’t care if you want it off the ground. I don’t care if you want a foundation. It’s using all the products that make sense, nothing but mould-free, nothing but zero VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. This is not hard.”
Sure, mould-free drywall might cost 50 cents or $1 more per sheet than standard drywall, Holmes concedes, but will pay off in the long term, especially considering the number of homes on First Nations reserves that need renovation only a few years after being built. More than 40 per cent of the existing homes on reserves need major repairs, compared with seven per cent off reserve, according to a government-commissioned assessment of First Nations housing.
“Look at the cost of taking it down and doing it again,” Holmes said. “There’s no comparison.”
For Holmes, helping First Nations improve their housing stock extends far beyond choosing the right wood and drywall or hammering nails.
“The smartest thing we can do is to teach the First Nations how to do it,” says Holmes. “When they do it themselves, they have pride, and they care, and that’s what I think is the missing link, not to mention just using the wrong products and building foolishly.”
No quick fixes
Ralph Fireman, an 85-year-old in the Cree community of Attawapiskat, lives with his wife and granddaughter in a shack without running water. (Allison Dempster/CBC)
No one — least of all Holmes — suggests that the First Nations housing crisis can quickly or easily be resolved.
“It’s going to take time to spread out and make this right,” Holmes said. “As long as they continue to just fix, lipstick or mascara, or build the wrong way, this is never going to end.”
South of Attawapiskat, one First Nation is involved in an alliance that could offer hope for its housing problems at the same time as creating jobs and boosting work skills for its members.
“For me, obviously, the way housing is done in Canada for First Nations doesn’t work,” said Bobby Cheechoo, a member of the Moose Cree First Nation. “I think one of the options that should be considered is turning housing into a business.”
‘True and proper solutions’
But what particularly sets the Moose Cree project apart is the form the housing takes: dwellings inside converted steel shipping containers.
“Building more wood-based houses that are going to burn down or be filled with mould again isn’t a good option for anybody,” says Steve Marshall, vice-president and general manager of the Sudbury-based Morris Group of Companies.
“These are true and proper solutions to the crisis. It creates employment. It’s their own community building their own homes. They profit by it, and the homes are far better quality.”
Marshall says the only drawback to the idea of using converted shipping containers for housing is the stigma associated with it.
“A lot of it is just the mentality of people saying, ‘How could you live inside a ship container?’” said Marshall. “Well, you’re not. You would never know.”
Marshall says the shipping container really only replaces the shell of a home that is traditionally built with wood. The steel frame is highly resistant to fire and won’t allow mould to develop, and inside, the home is comfortable.
Expert, efficient workers
“They’re safe units,” Marshall said. “They’re thermally efficient. These homes have longevity. They don’t break down. They don’t come apart in the same way.”
“If our vision is realized, for example, we would have our own people building these different methods, [and be] expert and efficient at it,” he says.
But it doesn’t necessarily come easily.
“I’m not afraid to say we’ve encountered challenges with our First Nation in trying to change the mindset that exists there … to think outside the box,” Cheechoo said.
But he sees hope for changing that mindset, particularly among younger generations.
“For our generation and the one before, it’s tough to think beyond the wood,” Cheechoo said.