Brokenhead Ojibway Nation
Scanterbury MB
Traditional First Nations Housing

Before the arrival of Europeans in North America, First Nations people constructed housing that was well-suited to their needs and their environment. Traditional First Nations dwellings varied significantly in shape and size. For example, nomadic tribes living in the Prairies and Canadian Shield constructed readily portable wigwams and tee-pees (see Figure 1) from poles and animal skins. Tribes living on the Pacific Coast resided in permanent red cedar longhouses (see Figure 2). While Inuit living in the northern reaches of the continent constructed igloos (see Figure 3) from packed ice and snow.

Figures 1 - 3: Tee-pee, Cedar Longhouse, Igloo

As more and more settlers arrived in Canada, First Nations peoples were strongly motivated to move to newly created reserves (Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 2001). Upon their relocation to the reserves, the Canadian government encouraged Aboriginal people to build permanent houses and adopt farming in place of their traditional hunting and trapping. Not familiar to a sedentary lifestyle, many First Nations people continued to nomadically hunt and trap on their traditional hunting grounds. However, as much of southern Canada was settled in the late 1800's and early 1900's, traditional hunting and trapping grounds were no longer available to the First Nations people. Due to increasing pressure from the government and the loss of access to hunting and trapping grounds, most First Nations people gave up their nomadic way of life for a sedentary existence on Canadian reserves (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1996).

First Nations people were relative non-participants in the housing and economic boom Canada experienced after World War II (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1996). The majority of First Nations people remained living on remote, rural reserves in dwellings that were crowded and lacking in most or all amenities. As health services on Aboriginal reserves were increased during the 1950's and 1960's, life expectancy of First Nations people greatly increased. The increase in health services also resulted in a dramatic drop in the infant mortality rate in First Nations communities (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1996). The increase in life expectancy and decrease in infant mortality made the existing overcrowding situation in First Nations communities substantially worse.

Since the 1960's the living conditions in on-reserve housing in Canada has not improved significantly. Overcrowding remains a serious problem in many First Nations communities. Many houses are in serious need of repair and others still lack basic amenities (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2001). Poor conditions of housing on First Nations reserves has contributed to a large number of Aboriginal people leaving reserves and migrating to urban areas of Canada. Unfortunately, many First Nations people do not find refuge from paltry housing conditions upon arriving in urban areas of Canada. First Nations peoples living off-reserve have recently experienced high levels of homelessness, child poverty, tenancy, and transience (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1997(3)).