Building at the speed of trust: Constructing culturally appropriate housing with Indigenous organizations

May 9, 2024
May 9, 2024
The Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. Community Homes

When Big Block Construction and Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. first partnered to help address the need for Métis-owned and operated affordable supported housing in Saskatoon, neither group could foresee the incredible impact that early partnership would have.

The Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge was a decades-in-the-making project for underserved Métis Elders. CUMFI had been trying to get the project off the ground for more than 20 years, hampered by conventional pre-development inefficiencies and fragmentation that led to shovels never getting into the ground.

In 2019, Big Block stepped in with a new approach: a unique Development Partner framework to deliver multifamily housing to communities in need. Specializing in factory-built construction processes, Big Block helped minimize risk and remove barriers for CUMFI while integrating collaborators and ultimately accelerating occupancy. 

The inefficiencies and fragmentation that CUMFI faced with that first project are all too common in Canada. Most of the country’s future housing supply suffers from a productivity crisis. Communities across the country need more culturally appropriate housing, yet too many housing projects suffer from inefficient collaborations, delays, workforce shortages and supply chain challenges.

Building culturally appropriate housing at scale will require a different approach. With the vast majority of construction capacity to deliver Indigenous housing tied up in the private sector, true collaboration requires transparent partnerships and process innovation to equitably shape power dynamics.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Call to Action #92: “Commit to meaningful consultation and build respectful relationships with Indigenous organizations. Ensure that Indigenous communities gain long-term sustainable benefits from economic development projects. Provide education for staff on the history of Indigenous peoples, including residential schools, the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, treaties and Indigenous rights, and Indigenous-Crown relations.” 

Incorporating cultural aspects into the Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge was a rewarding learning experience for the Big Block team, and the Development Partner framework equipped CUMFI with the confidence to forge ahead with its next project: Community Homes.

CUMFI has extensive experience providing housing for its community members through property acquisitions, but had spent decades spinning its wheels with conventional approaches to creating new purpose-built rentals. After finding the right development partner in Big Block, the Métis non-profit opened the doors to two new construction properties in just two short years.

Community Homes offers affordable housing for large families in Saskatoon and is just steps away from Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge and the CUMFI office, contributing to neighbourhood renewal in Pleasant Hill Village in Saskatoon. 

Preliminary concepts kept the cultural aspects of the project at its core, and as a Rapid Housing Initiative project, a factory-built model was in place from the get-go. 

With simultaneous work on and off-site, the build time for CUMFI’s RHI project was minimized to four and a half months. The savings on build time alone were estimated to be at least five months compared to conventional site-built construction methods.

One mother of six told CUMFI about her life-changing experience after moving into Community Homes, saying, "This has changed my life . . . They have given us the comfort, security and stability that we have always been without. I am so grateful to CUMFI for how they have given me and my family an opportunity that most Indigenous families with multiple children will never get.”

Celebrating cultural traditions

Building culturally appropriate housing starts with the community it serves. CUMFI envisioned Round Prairie Elders’ Lodge specifically for Métis Elders, so design work began with community engagement sessions to ensure their visions were captured. 

At the Elders' Lodge, Métis culture is evident in design elements throughout the building. Everything has a touch of culture and thought, from siding that references the Red River Frame to sunshades inspired by flower beadwork. 

To develop culturally appropriate designs, architect David T. Fortin drew on stories from Elders, his own experiences growing up in a Métis community, and research on traditional ways of living.

“It’s important to celebrate [cultural traditions],” David said. “It strengthens the identity of Métis people and gives them a sense that their culture is valued in the city where they live.”

Big Block engaged David T. Fortin Architect in taking a similar approach to designing the Silver Sage Housing Corporation’s Horse Dance Lodge / misatimosimôwin mîhkowâp building in North Regina, a transitional place for people needing immediate housing. Like the CUMFI Community Homes, it was also part of the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative.

David and his team worked with local artist Linda Obey-Lavallee to add meaningful design elements to Horse Dance Lodge. In addition to choosing the interior paint colours (a warm orange palette to reflect the Home Fire), Linda created a hand-drawn design for the sun shades based on the tipi and the geometry used on ribbon skirts. She also gave input into the angled posts on the corner of the building, representing tipi poles, and worked with the team to develop artwork for the room number signs.

Fortin says that he and his team — and the team at Big Block — feel these buildings can provide meaningful, direct outcomes in improving people’s lives.

“These buildings are going to play a central role in improving people's quality of life,” he said. “And if that can help strengthen cultural and community ties in that process, then that's already a meaningful project.”

Calgary’s solution to urban Indigenous and non-market housing

Solving Canada’s housing crisis and building culturally appropriate housing at scale begins in the pre-development stage, including ensuring land is made available for Indigenous groups.

Calgary’s non-market housing land disposition program has helped eight non-profit housing groups build almost 400 new affordable homes through discounted non-market land sales. Every two years, the city sells up to 10 sites at a lower price to groups that make affordable housing.

The 2024 sale aims to add a minimum of 289 additional affordable homes in Calgary across five properties. These properties range in size from less than half an acre up to 1.7 acres and are priced below market value, between $382k per acre and $1.5 m per acre.

The City of Calgary divided the sale application window into two phases:

  • March 18 to April 25, 2024, for Indigenous housing providers.
  • May 27 to July 4, 2024, for all qualified non-profit housing providers.

As part of the program, the City of Calgary has funding support available for eligible development and building construction costs. Successful applicants may claim up to $75,000 in city funding per non-market residential unit. 

The City of Calgary is hosting a free information session and workshop regarding their fourth non-market land sale on May 30, 2024. It will cover details of the available sites, application process, as well the per door City contribution funding for successful purchasers.

Seasoned non-profit housing developers are encouraged to register via the Eventbrite link below to reserve a spot at the online event:

One of the most affordably priced parcels of land earmarked for non-market housing in Calgary in the first phase.

Land dispositions tied to housing outcomes could be implemented across Canada from all levels of government, potentially rectifying the severe lack of culturally appropriate housing for urban Indigenous communities. 

More government-owned urban parcels are suitable for multi-family housing, especially when paired with lucrative, stackable programs for capital and operational funding that is accessible for Indigenous non-profits navigating tight constraints for new development. 

Coupled with development partners like Big Block with a track record of delivering quality factory-built multifamily housing at scale for Indigenous groups, it would be a life-changing opportunity to build more affordable housing solutions for some of the country’s most vulnerable people. 

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