By Nancy J. Coombs, Founder, Indigenous Issues Series

Housing insecurity was tackled in the second installment of the Harvard Club of Toronto’s Indigenous Issues Series on November 12th. Dr. Shelagh McCartney – Harvard Graduate School of Design alumna, professor, and Director of Together Design Lab (TDL) – joined with Michael Mckay in addressing Community-Led Solutions for Indigenous Housing. The series aims also to honour the university’s 1650 charter commitment to Indigenous education by promoting the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Michael Mckay is the Infrastructure and Housing Director at Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political territorial organization representing forty-nine First Nation communities within northern Ontario. The NAN Territory covers over 249,000 square miles, more than half of Ontario’s total land area. Its population, on and off reserve, is estimated to be 45,000 people. Michael - originally from Bearskin Lake First Nation - has worked in the infrastructure and housing sector since 2000. In 2014, the NAN Chiefs in Assembly collectively declared a NAN-wide Housing State of Emergency as a result of “decades of inappropriate intervention”. He began by speaking about the accessibility challenges that remote, fly-in communities face. Stressing that quality housing is a key social determinant of both physical and mental health, he said that housing inadequacy has contributed to mental illness, violence, crime, suicide, and disease within Indigenous communities. Housing is a human right, Mackay asserted, and can improve Indigenous wellness; therefore, it should be a Canadian priority. Incorporating Indigenous values in the housing process is also important: respect, listening, and community-led solutions are all part of the Together Design Lab’s approach.

Dr. Shelagh McCartney is a licensed architect and urbanist specializing in marginalized community development and housing. She earned bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies and Professional Architecture from the University of Waterloo, and as a Fulbright scholar, Master of Design Studies and Doctor of Design from Harvard Graduate School of Design. An Associate Professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University, she was also named a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada in 2021. At TDL, she leads an innovative research and design lab that focuses on contemporary, interdisciplinary approaches to community and open territory design. NAN and TDL have been working together since 2017 and have been partners with NAN in the creation of its strategy since 2018. She and Mackay work towards outcomes that prioritize “localized issues and goals.”

McCartney provided background details on the Indian Act of 1876 which continues to have ramifications today. It took away economic opportunities and blocked access to financing, setting in place paternalistic hierarchies which contributed to poverty and housing insecurity. Indigenous communities felt powerless as “wards of the state” and were trapped on the reserve with the pass system controlling their movements. This toxic framework also created alienation, McCartney asserted, crushing imagination and limiting potential. The notion of “time for Indians to administer Indians” was eventually introduced. However, the operating assumption was “government knew best”, with housing ministries governing services without consultation nor consent. Their policies, she stated, failed which they used as proof that Indigenous communities “needed help”.

Mckay and McCartney’s collaborative approach is based on consultations and empowering local voices to define housing needs. The duo goes for multi-day site visits, seeking broad-based input from children, youth, and elders, not just experts. Mackay said, “Every family needs a space to create memories”. Their vision includes culture, climate and the geography of space and moving beyond stagnation. Housing could “define a whole system and way of being”, incorporating ways to hold community events and arts activities as well as providing skills training, mental heath resources, to name a few.

Housing is “not one size fits all.” Rather, it is “extremely personal and much more than just shelter.” The ideal framework includes design, governance, administration, access to services, growth planning. They want a full range of participation in discussions in which everyone “feels safe”. Mackay also said flexibility was important: “There are many routes to housing security, not always home ownership.”

Control and autonomy are also essential. The tragedy of “lost generations” - due to the forced removal of children for residential schools plus casualties from two world wars - still traumatize Indigenous communities. Mackay says, with careful planning, it is important to move forward in practical ways that benefit the entire community’s well-being and solidify control by empowering regional governance. In their vision for their future, cooperation between Nations build cohesion and a unified approach.

As self-determination is reasserted, some specific ways to assist the Indigenous communities were suggested. Generators are needed to get power into the areas, and access to credit can assure that individuals can stay on the reserve by building businesses and homes there. Mackay also cited the example of a sawmill operating in their territory, highlighting the inequities which still exist. While its owners are prospering from the land, Indigenous communities are in a housing crisis.

Donations of building supplies are always appreciated, it was noted, and participants were asked to spread the word in this regard. In closing, the Harvard Club of Toronto announced its contribution to Together Design Lab in gratitude to the speakers and as a way to continue the work outlined in the talk: “it is possible, working together, to change lives, to build, and to heal.”

If club members have ideas or would like to discuss partnering opportunities, Mckay and McCartney indicated that they would welcome input:

Here are some ways to take action or explore themes presented in the talk:

Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Together Design Lab:
NAN Housing Strategy:

Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP):

To support First Nations’ youth and projects through Together Design Lab: