Initiatives to Improve Indigenous Housing: A Panel with Policy Leaders

By Serena Rawn

The Indigenous Policy Initiative (IPI), is a student organization driven by a single goal; to do our part in promoting open, cross-cultural dialogue regarding Indigenous issues. Housed in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, we hope to inspire strategic changes within our community. We strive to foster productive partnerships and make a positive impact for Indigenous communities with all of our pursuits.

(I would like to acknowledge that, while I am writing for the Indigenous Policy Initiative, I am not an Indigenous person.)
I wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the
Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous
people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

Initiatives to Improve Indigenous Housing: A Panel with Policy Leaders

Having access to safe living conditions is one of the many aspects necessary to live a healthy life. In Canada, however, it is far too common for Indigenous people, whether living on- or off-reserves, to face significant housing inequities. According to the results of the 2016 Census, 19.4% of the total Indigenous population of Canada were living in housing that required major repairs (defined as a dwelling with defective plumbing, wiring, or needing structural repairs to walls, floors, or ceilings). Comparatively, only 6.0% of the non-Indigenous population listed their housing situation as in need of major repairs. While Indigenous people living off-reserve reported less need for major repairs to their housing than those on-reserve, the reports are still significantly higher than non-Indigenous people. Additionally, not having access to safe housing increases Indigenous women’s risk of violence, being trafficked, and contributes to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

On February 3, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Indigenous Policy Initiative (IPI) hosted its first event of 2021, focusing on Indigenous Housing Policy. The event featured five policy experts from four different Ontario-based Indigenous organizations.

IPI welcomed Peggy Rice, Policy Analyst, and Daneen Dénommé, Director of Policy and Programs – Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS); Bonnie Wilson, Housing Policy Analyst – Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA); Chelsea Combot, Policy Coordinator – Housing and Homelessness Policy Analyst – Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centers (OFIFC); and Juan Gomez, Senior Policy and Research Analyst – Housing and Homelessness – Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO).


The event began with presentations by Ms. Rice and Ms. Dénommé from OAHS, which is an organization focused on providing safe and affordable housing to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis people living off-reserve, whether in urban or rural areas of Ontario. Ms. Rice and Ms. Dénommé introduced the concept of the Wheelhouse Model to housing which recognizes that people’s housing needs can change over time as a result of changing circumstances. This is different from the linear approach to housing that identifies home ownership as the end goal. The program’s waitlist is determined by priority, based on people’s need to escape violence, homelessness, health and safety emergencies, family reunification, overcrowding, or accessibility needs. Additionally, the organization has programs focused on helping Indigenous people become homeowners and obtaining the necessary repair services. Beyond the services offered to help people find a place to live, the organization has a support services team to help people transitioning to a new phase of their life.


Next, Ms. Wilson discussed the work of the ONWA, a not-for-profit organization to support Indigenous women and their families. ONWA provides support to its members and, through the implementation of their services, aims to influence provincial and national policymaking. ONWA is a collaborator with the OAHS, providing technical support and promotion of housing initiatives, and advancing policymaking as needed. The ONWA also works alongside the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ontario and other relevant ministries to support the development of housing policy and legislation.

The Policy, Research, and Evaluation Team of ONWA is focused on the safety of Indigenous women when making policy decisions. The policy analysts from ONWA use a cultural-based and gender-based analysis approach when advocating for policies and legislation. In addition to having the policy analysts fight for legislation, OWNA encourages Indigenous women to share their stories as part of their policy advocacy. OWNA is focused on eight different areas that improve the safety of communities, and especially those communities with Indigenous women facing sexual violence, family violence, child welfare, housing and homelessness, health, and MMIWG. OWNA utilizes an Indigenous Gender Based Framework, as well as the Harmony Circle model which is focused directly on Indigenous women. By focusing on actions and solutions, OWNA addresses the systemic issues that risk the safety of Indigenous women.


OWNA’s research and analysis work on housing policy is dictated by the importance of culturally appropriate, gender-based and rights-based analysis in order to help Indigenous women find safe and affordable housing. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples established the right of Indigenous People to the improvement of their economic and social conditions, which includes housing. OWNA advocates for those most at risk to find housing, including those that are fleeing violence. The OWNA’s current recommendations for improving housing policy of Indigenous women include increasing support services for Indigenous women, designing programs that are implemented by and for Indigenous people, and ensuring that barriers to Indigenous women finding safe housing are eliminated.

We were joined next by Ms. Combot from the OFIFC, which aims to improve the lives of Indigenous people who are living in an urban environment. The OFIFC has centers across the province, with many already implementing culture-based housing programs and services. The housing programs offered by the OFIFC are tailored to the needs of different people within the Indigenous community living in urban Ontario, including those experiencing homelessness, and for sole-parent mothers so they can complete their education. The OFIFC is hoping to increase awareness of the housing services they provide, increase funding opportunities related to housing, and improve relationships with other groups in order to increase awareness about the housing situation in urban Indigenous communities. Despite these goals, there are still a lot of challenges associated with the work that the OFIFC is doing, including unstable funding, racism, and lack of recognition of the issues facing Indigenous people in urban communities. Additionally, on a federal level, the government has not focused on urban Indigenous housing and homelessness initiatives in their policy agenda. The Urban Indigenous Action Plan is a policy framework developed from a partnership between the Government of Ontario, OFIFC, ONWA, and MNO. This action plan has established four major steps to ensure that the provincial government and Indigenous partners work effectively together, these include: i) Relationship Building, ii) Policy Engagement and Co-Development, iii) Service Planning, Design and Delivery, and iv) Evaluation. These four parameters can be assessed to determine how well the government is interacting with Indigenous communities in urban settings.


Our final panelist was Mr. Gomez from the MNO, which is an organization representing the Métis people of Ontario. The MNO has implemented programs to support those facing housing challenges by investing in social housing initiatives. The goals of the Housing and Infrastructure Branch of the MNO are to foster community development, provide care to meet the needs of citizens of the Métis Nation, ensure that Métis people can exercise their rights and freedoms, and promote the culture and traditions of the Métis people. The MNO sit on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Regional Housing Services to support policy development of affordable housing for Métis people. The Canada Métis Nation has proposed a Métis National Housing Strategy that includes a goal to increase the availability of housing units for Métis Nation families, as well as establishing a flexible program framework that meets the needs of specific regions and communities.


This panel, hosted by IPI, provided participants an in-depth look at the unique challenges faced by Indigenous people across Ontario in finding safe, affordable housing. Additionally, it provided insight to the intricacies of policymaking for various Indigenous housing initiatives. Housing challenges are one of many issues facing Indigenous people in Canada and we, as future policymakers, need to be aware of these challenges as we enter our careers.

Serena Rawn is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public policy and an Analyst of the Indigenous Policy Initiative. She holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Chemistry from Bishop’s University and  is very interested in Indigenous, environmental, and scientific policy issues.

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