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Native leaders cautious about housing MOU

Money needed to make housing a reality

Native leaders in the Sea to Sky corridor gave cautious approval to a memorandum of understanding on housing signed last week by the province, federal government and the First Nations Leadership Council, a body composed of British Columbian aboriginal leadership interests.

The MOU acknowledges gaps in housing standards between First Nations and non-native British Columbians, both on and off reserve lands. The document calls for the formation of a committee within the next three months. That body is tasked with strategy development responsibilities, and the three signatories will meet annually to discuss progress.

“It’s another process,” said Squamish Nation Chief Gibby Jacob. “And I’m starting to feel like processed cheese.”

According to Jacob, Squamish Nation has a backlog of 1,000 housing applications for its reserve lands. Based on priorities set out by the membership, elders are accommodated first, with families, single parents and singles trailing behind. The bulk of those applications are from singles, said Jacob, with approximately 50 per cent of the Nation’s membership aged 25 and under.

“Unless you’re willing to dedicate some financial resources to this thing, then it’s just another process,” Jacob said, at the same time acknowledging the need for such a process.

Financial needs are dire, with each home priced at $140,000, said Jacob, a figure that brings the overall monetary requirement to roughly $140 million.

Farther north, in the traditional lands of the Lil’wat, news of the MOU was greeted with similar restraint.

Our community, like many others, has been looking for creative ways of meeting the basic housing needs of its members while having to stay within the confinements of an archaic, limiting and under-funded system that endorses a one size fits all approach,” said Daniel Sailland, senior administrator with the Mount Currie Band, in a written statement issued to Pique Newsmagazine .

“It is no revelation that collaboration, innovation and increased funding are required in order to address this grave issue; however, we can only hope that this MOU (does) not find the same fate as the Kelowna Agreement. Political will is only as good as its accompanying champions, funding sources (preferably pre-identified and secured), planning and respective infrastructure.”

The Kelowna Agreement was hammered out in November 2005 between then Prime Minister Paul Martin, premiers and aboriginal leaders. Priced at $5 billion, the agreement vowed to improve education, health, housing, economic development and infrastructure.

Just three days later, the Martin government, beleaguered on a number of fronts, collapsed, thus triggering the election that saw the Stephen Harper Conservatives achieve a minority government. During the campaign, the Conservatives famously touted five priorities for governmental focus — not one of which included First Nations affairs. The first budget tabled by the Conservatives contained just $450 million for aboriginal issues, a figure decried by native leaders.

“We are hopeful and will certainly actively participate in this housing initiative,” continued Sailland’s statement. “What we fear is that this initiative becomes another short lived political celebration or worse yet, a compromised set of costly limiting rules and regulations.”

As with Jacob, Sailland called for more funds, saying the approach taken by British Columbia, under the auspices of the New Relationship, has produced dividends on the ground. Money, leadership and timelines all contributed to the improvements, wrote Sailland.

Said Jacob: “ We’ve done many studies that have gone nowhere. Providing a framework to do something — that’s pretty tough.”