(this is the second part of an ongoing series on Attawapiskat and Northern Development. Read the first part here)

Building homes and communities in Canada’s North is nothing like development in Southern Ontario. In a lot of ways, it’s more like trying to develop the moon. For starters. In Hamilton we enjoy the luxury of being on multiple trade routes, being close to the American border as well as having shipping access to the Atlantic. Despite this, about one in five of our population lives in poverty, a large number of whom are Native, Despite having some of the world’s cheapest food, people still starve. And despite being surrounded by quarries and other sources of building materials, we still have a large homeless population and thousands of homes which are literally falling apart. Take away all of these advantages, and what are you left with? Shipping costs through the roof, widespread labour shortages, forbidding terrain and extremely harsh climates.

A single house in Attawapiskat is estimated to cost around $250 000 to build. That’s 2-3 times the price of a comparable house around here. In regions where funding is so scarce and basic infrastructure so rare, this means that even with millions in funding, only a handfull of houses can really be built. The houses which do get constructed are standard models, built with pre-fabricated parts and generally of fairly low quality. Like cheaper, tackier cousins of the suburban homes so common around here, they’re often totally unsuited to these communities, either ecologically or culturally. Instead, they end up looking like some sort of cheap suburban cul-de-sac.

“Although Attawapiskat is nominally in Ontario, it really needs to be seen as the far north. Goods come in by barge until freeze up. Medical personnel fly in twice a week, “the Lord willin’ and the river don’t rise.” And the Attawapiskat River often rises. That is one factor that contributes to the infestation of mold in the houses. Most of the houses that look like real houses are built to an Indian Affairs design used from coast to coast to coast without regard for whether they are appropriate in an Arctic setting like Attawapiskat. Or in any other extreme climate, hot or cold. (When similar houses were shipped to Indigenous villages in Guatemala as part of Canada’s aid after a major earthquake, the plywood began to host insects as soon as the houses were put up. The people moved out and moved their livestock in.)
– Michael Poluns, Slaw magazine (“Dunkin’ the Victim: a Note on Legal-Political Background of the Current Attawapiskat Campaign“)

For obvious reasons, neither these homes nor this set of numbers has much of a future. Whether Attawapiskat can be saved from the worst of their housing crisis in the short term is one question, but these issues are not unique to one reserve, or even to reserves at all. Canada’s northern communities have a bitter history of neglect and exploitation, and that’s left us a problem which spans most of our country’s land mass. Even our water treatment systems are facing a national crisis, and there’s no telling where the money will come from to build all of this.

As I noted in the last article, attempts at “civilizing” the north with Southern Ontario styled cities have always been destined for failure. There’s no desire or need for that kind of metropolis in areas with population densities a thousandth of ours, and no hope for the funding or resources to make it happen.

If there ever was a better case for off-the-grid appropriate technologies, I haven’t heard it. Not only are these communities often thousand of kilometres from “the grid”, but Arctic and Sub-Arctic winters make substandard housing potentially lethal. Economically and logistically, sending out a million drywall panels on trucks from a few southern gypsum mills is destined to be a nightmare and does little or nothing for local economic development.

What would a successful housing strategy need? First, it would have to be almost totally decentralized, if it were to have any hope of spreading through the vast and remote north. Secondly, homes would need to be simple enough for local people to build them, to avoid the need for huge imported construction crews. Third, they’d need to be able to suit their respective environments, and that means very different things for Saskatchewan, BC and Nunavut. This means being built out of local materials and being able to withstand local climates. This also means being culturally appropriate for the communities they’re being built in, especially on Reserves (and again, this would mean different things with the Haida and Haudenosonee) . Finally, and most importantly, these homes are going to have to exist in most cases independent of any kind of municipal infrastructure (gas, water, power, sewers etc).

Resource crises like Peak Oil will hit northern communities exponentially harder than here. Not only will the price of coal, oil and gas rise, but so will the price of transporting it. Faced with issues of scarcity, heavily consuming southern communities will continue to demand exports of oil, such as those from the Tar Sands or Alaskan reserve drilling, bringing a host of other ugly local consequences.

There are many forms of housing available which could meet some of these needs. Earthships can supply all their own water, heat and power, but most were designed for places like New Mexico, which are a far cry from the North West Territories. Most earth-built and earth-sheltered designs aren’t terribly appropriate for places where the soil only goes down two inches before hitting bedrock. That being said, these areas are far from naturally poor, and the amount of lumber, stone or straw-bales lying around for anyone with a truck is often colossal. What’s needed here is ingenuity, and adaptable open-source designs. When Earthbag builders travelled to Haiti to help with the reconstruction, they started using bags filled with gravel and crushed rubble from wrecked buildings. That kind of ingenuity and resourcefulness is what’s needed here. At the moment, a number of northern options are getting a lot of attention, from those of renovation show host Mike Holmes to others which use shipping containers or other locally produced panels for durable, long-lasting mould-free homes, and help build local economies and skill bases.

Most of Canada’s landmark buildings were constructed long before jackhammers and concrete. One need only look at the history of early settler cities and farming communities to see what kind of brilliant architectural legacy can be built by ordinary folks with simple tools. These architecturally brilliant structures often still stand today, and would be very hard to accomplish today with modern financial realities. Most First Nations, too, have a far longer history of ingenious building styles using locally available materials, from the Longhouses of Six Nations to the “pit houses” on British Columbia’s coast. Green building visionaries have long emulated indigenous designs for these reasons, and it’s hard to imagine where green building would be today without ancient designs from Arizona to Yemen. Surely, there is some interesting potential in the Canadian north.

As essential as off-the-grid technologies are, the issue of appropriate technology also comes up. Where imports are scarce and expensive and skilled workers often must be brought from thousands of kilometres away, giant wind-farms and solar arrays aren’t always going to be an option. They’re expensive, exotic imports which require a lot of highly specialized skill to keep running. Perhaps wind generators can be built with old car alternators, or gas-powered generators run off sewage bio-digestion processes or woodgas. In areas where so much heating still takes place by wood, accessible high-efficiency wood-stoves are a must for reasons of health, work and ecology. These and other options can be built and maintained locally, using parts which already exist there – and the designs and knowledge needed to reproduce them is far easier to ship, whether electronically or personally. Teaching these skills lays the groundwork for both local self-sufficiency and the growth of local community-based economies. Given the unbelievable distances involved, a network of small operations, whether machinists or builders, will always be more efficient, and give more back to the communities involved.

Any strategy which is going to work in the north will have to put northerners and their communities first. So far our government’s strategies have done a far better job of producing a steady steam of cheap workers and resources for the rich and populated south. If these communities are going to survive, it won’t be by way of becoming more integrated with and dependent on far-off markets. Autonomy, self-sufficiency and above all, recognition and respect are needed. It’s time to give up on the idea that we, as southerners, need to “fix” life up North – that’s not something that’s in our power. All we can do is stand in solidarity and offer assistance as the people of the North fix it themselves.