Active House to Passive House: Three Approaches to the Indigenous Housing Crisis

By Toby Davine, PBC

house with wood siding
Photo by One House Many Nations

Indigenous peoples in Canada are experiencing a full-blown housing crisis. For many who live on-reservation, overcrowding, rampant mould, pest infestations, and crumbling homes have become the norm. 

Though many Nations face similar issues, their approaches to addressing their housing concerns vary. I spoke with individuals from three First Nations that are building homes that seek to reduce environmental impact and improve community wellbeing to learn more about their work.

Grassroots Action in Opaskwayak Cree Nation

Dr. Alex Wilson is from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, situated in northern Manitoba. She is a professor with the Department of Educational Foundations and the Academic Director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. She is also an active organizer with One House Many Nations, a campaign of the Idle No More movement. 

As Professor Wilson explains, the roots of the housing crisis lie in the ongoing process of colonialism. In addition to Europeans seizing and settling Indigenous land, housing has been a key process in the targeted assimilative process against Indigenous peoples. 

Today, laws and policies regarding Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to contribute to keeping them in poverty

“Because of the building code, you can’t take a tree, saw it and use it to make a house. That’s one of the things we’re challenging as well. Who comes up with these codes? They don’t serve Indigenous communities.” Opaskwayak Cree Nation is rich in forests, but many of their trees are cut down and extracted for outside purposes.

pile of logs graphic showing wood extracted from Indigenous lands
Photo by One House Many Nations

Wilson describes that homes on reservations are typically constructed by outside builders that often fall apart right away and get black mould.

Given the systemic nature of the crisis, Professor Wilson and co-organizers with One House Many Nations are raising awareness about the housing crisis among Indigenous communities and pressuring the government to honour treaty and human rights. Their approach in doing so continues to evolve.

The group started by building a small, stick frame house in Big River First Nation, Saskatchewan. Through crowdfunding and widespread community support, the house was built (mostly by women) and was completely off-grid, with a compost toilet and powered by solar energy and heated with a wood stove. 

Since then, their focus has shifted to a more holistic approach to the housing problem. “We really want a village model so it’s a whole system, not just one individual house,” Wilson explains.  

The group now also includes architects, builders, academics, and students across North America, but some of the most critical knowledge has been shared by elders and members of the community in Opaskwayak Cree Nation. 

“We’re trying to keep the same principles of housing pre-colonization. The houses might not physically look the same as in the past, but the principles are the same,” explains Wilson.  

The village model will feature 4 to 6 smaller units and a communal area were the community can share things that not everybody needs, like a washer/dryer, a full-sized kitchen, a full-sized bathroom with a bathtub, a communal eating space, an outdoor space for processing meat and fish, and a community garden. 

“We’re building active houses, instead of passive, explains Professor Wilson. “There’s that relational core to it that is central to Indigenous knowledge. We’re trying to recreate a living tree or entity; a house that can breathe, where air can move through it.” 

Though Professor Wilson and the team did look at passive house as a possibility for their housing designs, she explains that the types of material and its linkages to Indigenous peoples were more important. For example, they want to avoid using plastic or metal. 

“Where does this material come from? Does it comes from Indigenous territory? Is it being imported from China or overseas? What’s the global impact?” she says. 

In their current housing project, they are using locally sourced products like cross-laminated timber from local spruce, which is more breathable and less susceptible to mould. The shell is constructed by volunteers  in the community and the utility corps will be built by a specialised team offsite. Wilson explains that due to a limited building season, this was the most efficient way to build the homes while still employing local workers.

Three people standing in front of house
Volunteers constructing home on Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Photo by One House Many Nations

Net-Zero in the Cree Nation of Eastmain

The Cree Nation of Eastmain (CNE) is a small community located on the east coast of James Bay that is experiencing a critical housing shortage.   

Last year CNE applied for a large grant through the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge to develop “an affordable, culturally-appropriate Net Zero Energy (NZE) housing program,” as described in their proposal. Although CNE did not ultimately win the challenge, Housing Director Stanley Gilpin explains that they will still continue with the project.

This summer they are undertaking a pilot project: a one-unit, net-zero, accessible space and one retrofit. With the help of researchers at Concordia University, they hope to collect data on air quality, air flow, and energy usage to see how they can improve and make changes in order to reach net-zero energy. Next summer they hope to build row houses. 

The homes will be built using a double wall system, 12 to 18 inches, with cellulose insulation. 

“There’s cost savings for tenants in the long run [due to] the reduced consumption of hydro electricity and for building the unit. The plan was to install solar panels for each,” says Gilpin. 

By working with a local retail supplier in the region, they were also able to cut costs by using materials they did not sell in their auctions. 

While the project has received support from architects and builders steeped in the high-performance building trade, it was important for the CNE to build capacity among local workers to create a self-sustaining housing system. 

“We will be doing training with local workers to learn how to build to this NZE standard,” says Gilpin. 

Passive House in Yale First Nation

The first ever passive houses built on a First Nation reserve in Canada are located on Yale First Nation in British Columbia. 

The sixplex and fourplex were completed in 2017 and are meant to withstand the region’s wet climate. 

multi unit house with red and tan siding
Completed passive house fourplex. Photo by Yale First Nation

“As a First Nation community, we are very committed to protecting the earth; by reducing our carbon footprint, we are able to do that,” explains Crystal Sedore, Housing Manager of Yale First Nation. 

“Cutting expenses for our Nation’s citizens is also very important, as many of our on-reserve residents are on fixed income or are considered low income. The new homes that employ passive technologies has allowed us to reduce utility costs to a fraction of the cost of heating/cooling compared to our conventional “BC Box” houses,” says Sedore.   

Passive house design has also helped improve indoor air quality--something which is particularly important in this region. 

“Air quality and comfort for our elders and our babies is also important to us, particularly with the wildfires that burn in our area each summer. High performance HRV [heat recovery ventilation] systems provide clean healthy environments indoors, even while the outdoors air quality deteriorates to dangerous levels. The airtightness that goes along with building [passive house] helps us achieve these goals,” says Sedore. 

To keep costs down and simplify the building process, Yale First Nation also opted for prefabricated modular designs

“We decided to build modular right from the onset, which was extremely trouble free and simplified at our end. The burden of project management was lifted from our housing department and was handled by the modular company, which prevented the hassle of us coordinating sub trades, arranging inspections, permits, etc.,” says Sedore. 

As for expanding passive house design to other Indigenous communities, Sedore explains that this might not always be feasible. 

“I feel that the only reason why a First Nation may choose not go [passive house] is because of the up-front cost. Even though they will save money long term on energy costs and maintenance, not all nations have the resources to build above the funding provided by CMHC or ISC; funding which is generally adequate to build to the ‘minimal acceptable standard’”.

It is clear that whichever approach Indigenous communities choose to follow, there is no one-size-fits-all housing solution. Passive house has been well received for the residents of Yale First Nation, but was ultimately not the right approach for Opaskwayak Cree Nation or the Cree Nation of Eastmain. Each project must address the needs, desires, and customs of the community first. 

As Professor Wilson explains, “you could build thousands of houses and it wouldn’t solve the housing crisis.” The roots of this issue grow long and deep and will require major changes to federal funding programs, housing codes, and laws governing the lives and lands of Indigenous peoples in Canada. There is much work to do, but these projects provide a hopeful glimpse of what the future might hold for the homes-- and villages-- of Indigenous peoples on this land.