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Chawathil First Nation repairs 15 of 89 houses

Plans underway to fix the rest of the 74 houses

After four decades of dealing with poor housing conditions, Chawathil First Nation (CFN) has repaired 15 of their houses.

“The community response has been very positive,” said CFN Coun. Aaron Pete who is in charge of Chawathil’s housing portfolio. “There’s optimism in the community now and hope that things are gonna change.

“We did have one person, who had their home repaired, say that they were very hesitant to let their kid be a Chawathil member (their father was from a different First Nation community) because they didn’t know if any new housing would ever be built. Or that things would ever improve. And that (the repairs) gave them a lot of hope that things could be better.”

The good news — which CFN says is a big win for them — is part of the band’s current big housing project to repair all 89 houses remaining in the community. In the beginning of 2023, because of the severity of the repairs and health issues with the buildings, CFN was able to obtain funding from Indigenous Service Canada and Canada Mortage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Since then, all of those have been repaired and the band put in a second application in June 2023, to receive funding to fix another 15 houses. There are also plans, in the near future, to submit a third application for 15 more houses to be repaired.

According to both Pete and CFN Housing Manager Saje Murphy, for nearly 40 years, CFN members living on reserve have been living in houses with unsafe living conditions. These conditions include: significant holes in the roofs, ceilings, walls, and floors; broken windows, floors, and structural supports; rotting of the houses’ wooden frames; not enough rooms to house the families living there; lack of working heating, plumbing, and electricity; damaged or missing carports.

Additionally, all of the houses, they said, are also dealing with a severe mold problem which is causing health issues (such as asthma) for CFN members.

“All of our homes have health and safety concerns,” Murphy said. “So there hasn’t been a question whether or not we should apply for that money. And then our contractors are really wonderful in helping us move things around (with repairs).”

Housing on Chawathil reserves is very concerning for all members and CFN said they continue to work on improving existing homes and planning for new homes. However, because of the complications regarding Indigenous housing as well as land ownership in Chawathil, it has taken a while for that need to be addressed.

“Housing in First Nations communities is unique because the land is reserve land. Which has added complications for repairs and building new homes,” Pete said. “The problem with this structure is that (the land is) held in trust by the Canadian Government and is not sellable or able to be used as collateral. The background on the logic behind it is that (land belonging to) First Nation communities needed to be able to be passed on to future generations. And that was the logic matrix of why it wasn’t dedicated to one person and why you couldn’t sell it because it wasn’t yours to sell.”

“Within in the reserve lands there is on-reserve property rights called a certificate of possession (CP). CP land means it’s reserve land but it’s kind of dedicated to one person or one family. Many First Nation communities believe this land is the sole responsibility of the person or family member with the certificate of possession.

According to Pete, starting in the 80s’, CP became more commonplace within the community due to families expressing interest in specific plots of land and claiming it as their own. This practice, Pete said, complicated the land ownership even more because CFN members now have land that they can do “whatever they want” with but lack the organizational structure, funding, or community design to do so.

As such, like most First Nation communities, CFN’s land is unused because nobody wants to invest in their property because their land is not a commodity, like land in Chilliwack or Vancouver is.

“The immediate challenge we face is, if you needed a repair on a home you could take out a loan against your home to repair it,” Pete said. “Our land isn’t worth anything so we can’t leverage any money against it to take out a loan or anything like that to be able to look at repairs.

“Most of these homes were paid for or contributed by Indigenous Services Canada, in the 80s’ and 90s’. So, getting repairs on these homes was a challenge for community members. Because they didn’t have the money. And many people have log homes, and log homes are incredibly expensive to maintain. And there was never any plan in place to actually help members maintain their homes.”

Pete, who has been on council for nearly 18 months, first learned about his community’s dire housing situation in October 2022 after being given the housing portfolio. By November 2022, after sitting down with the families — and seeing the state of the houses they were living in — Pete said he couldn’t in good conscience end his three year term without trying to provide his community with safe and livable homes. Less than a month later, he went to work — meeting with experts and contractors knowledgeable in Indigenous housing (such as Daniel Tourville, the owner of Lá:Lém Building Inspection & Consulting, and First Nation Health Authority (FNHA) health inspectors, learning about the history of housing in Chawathil, and learning where he needed to go to obtain funding.

Around this time, Murphy was hired on as the housing manager — and, according to Pete, has been instrumental in completing the groundwork necessary to get the houses fixed. As the housing manager, Murphy is directly responsible for any emergencies that take place with peoples’ homes — whether that be maintenance, electricity or heating turning off, and broken appliances or facilities. And during the process of getting the homes repaired, Murphy has been the one to: speak directly with contractors; organize for them to come onsite to survey and repair the houses; speak directly with the homeowners and organize temporary housing for them; and address any concerns or questions members might have during repairs.

“I lived on reserve until I was 10. And then I lived off reserve,” Murphy said. “I was also an intern in this department (housing) eight years ago when I was 17. And I spent my summer at Chawathil in the housing department. I saw a lot of the downfalls. The department’s capacity was not where it needed to be, in order to get this done and to support our people as a whole. And so, when I came back, I came with this passion.

“I have a very clear understanding of where the gap between on reserve housing and off reserve housing is. And I want to bridge that gap. And so knowing the basics of the department, and knowing where it wasn’t doing good, really helped me to be able to do this (job). I definitely have a huge passion (for this career). And I’m coming back in with a drive to make sure that everyone feels heard and that’s really important to me.”

According to Murphy, one of the struggles to getting the houses fixed is the lack of financial and educational support for CFN’s housing department; at the time, the CFN department did not have enough knowledge to secure a solution to repair the houses. This was further complicated by the former management following the traditional philosophy, in First Nation communities, that CP properties are not the responsibility of the band — and, because it’s not their responsibility, CP band members must figure it out themselves. As such, no one was willing to guide CP homeowners on how to obtain funding to repair their homes.

“To (get this funding), you have to organize a home inspector coming into the home,” Pete said. “You have to have a health inspector come into the home. You have to have a contractor to estimate the cost to repair the home. And you have to fill out an application not just for that home, but also 10 other homes and to organize all of those different meetings (for the home inspector, health inspector, and contractor to visit those homes) at different times.

“And then have all of that culminate together into a 100 page package that goes to Indigenous Services Canada. It’s something that not everybody has the organizational mindset to be able to facilitate and plan a project for.”

Both Pete and Murphy said it was important to them that all the homes in Chawathil — including the CP houses — were repaired.

“The nation has the resources to help, so we are,” Murphy said. “And that’s something that Aaron and I got pushback on — having that stance that we have the resources and we have to do it. Because the funder we use does not care who owns the home. For them, it’s an on reserve house inhabited by our nation’s members. It absolutely has to be maintained.”

Despite the enormity of the project, Murphy said there hasn’t been any serious issues in getting the homes repaired.

“Honestly the problem is not being able to do this fast enough. That’s been the issue,” she said. “So, I’m really hoping that this year we can double what we did last year. Now that we know the process and now that we have trusted contractors and there’s a flow I’m really hoping they’ll get done sooner.”

Murphy said that push-back on funding has been nonexistent so far — something that she and Pete are both grateful for. Instead, most of their physical challenges has been through organizing meetings with contractors, getting documents signed, and then finding ways to efficiently repair the homes.

From an emotional standpoint, however, Pete and Murphy said they’ve faced challenges from the community itself.

“The main challenge, that impacted Saje directly (because she spends more time with the homeowners), is the trauma from people living in these homes,” Pete said. “You’re seeing people cry or yell at you because 10 years ago someone came to them and said they were going to fix it (their home). And 10 years before that somebody said they were going to fix it and nobody has followed through. And people would come in, see the problems, and then go back to their normal life.

“And that’s just some of the heavyweight Saje has had to take on more directly. Because there’s trauma involved in these people’s homes because it’s been like this for 40 years.”

For now, Pete and Murphy said they will continue to repairs the houses and to make them livable for their community. They estimate that in three years time all the houses will be repaired and, if things go well, they will be able to start building additional rental units in Chawathil. Pete said he is also looking into improving infrastructure in Chawathil such as building sidewalks, adding street lamps in the community, and building a safe walking path that connects Hope to Chawathil.

Chawathil members who have questions and are interested in learning more about the housing project are encouraged to attend Chawathil’s open house on Feb. 1 from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the gymnasium. Band members can also download Chawathil’s app to get updates and more information about current and upcoming projects/events.

READ MORE: Vancouver approves high-density Jericho Lands project criticized by some residents


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Kemone Moodley

About the Author: Kemone Moodley

I began working with the Hope Standard on August 2022.
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