November 15, 2022

Building housing, building partnerships

By Evergreen

Tips for collaborating with partners, organizations, and communities in northern and remote parts of the country from consultant Amanda Buffalo.

The Housing Supply Challenge Northern Round attracted many exciting ideas. See who has made it to Stage 2; Northern and Indigenous Consultant Amanda Buffalo will be working with many of them one-on-one, helping them understand the Northern perspective as they refine and test their solutions.  

We spoke to Amanda about the region’s unique challenges and tips for collaborating with partners, organizations, and communities in Northern and remote parts of the country.  

Why do you think this challenge is important?  

My life’s work is in the North, and particularly in Indigenous communities. I’ve worked with development corporations, First Nations governments, colonial governments, universities, and institutions – and understand the challenges we collectively face when it comes to housing in the North. I’m also a Northerner who has personally experienced housing issues, and I’ve seen promising innovations fail because their developers didn’t fully understand what life is like in the region.  

The Housing Supply Challenge Northern Access Round has supports in place to ensure applicants have the full picture. That’s what my role is all about: to share that Northern lens and offer a perspective that helps people develop solutions that work.  

What kinds of things should be factored in when trying to solve Northern and remote housing challenges?  

  1. The building season is very short. You can’t innovate and build year-round here. If you’re digging a foundation, for example, there’s only a couple of months where you can actually dig. 
  1. It’s hard to get building supplies. They’re expensive and time-consuming to ship. And because of access issues they have to arrive within a certain window, or you wait until the next building season. And if supplies arrive late in the season, there’s often nowhere to store them, and they’re unusable by the time the next building season rolls around. 
  1. You can’t always get what you want. If you need flooring, there might only be one place to buy it – and you’re limited to whatever it is they have in stock. Otherwise, you have to find something down south and have it shipped up. Or go down and get it yourself. I know builders who make regular runs to Edmonton so they can finish homes. 
  1. It’s colder than you think. A lot of solutions work great in other parts of the country, but just don’t cut it in the extreme cold in the North. I was part of an energy research project last winter and the solution simply couldn’t keep my house warm enough. I had to supplement the lack of heat with space heaters, which was very expensive and energy inefficient. And lots of people still have to use wood stoves because electricity and oil are so expensive up north. 
  1. People are really tied to wood heat. While proposing energy-efficient alternatives is great, the reality is that replacing wood as a heat source will meet with resistance. Also remember: many communities in the North are still on diesel power (especially fly-in locations), so wood is actually the cleaner alternative. And heat that relies on electricity and the grid? That’s a whole other challenge. We have a lot of outages: one time a squirrel took the power out in my community for 24 hours. For those who use electric heat in the winter, this would have been a major problem. 
  1. Internet access isn’t reliable. Any solutions that use cloud-based technology face challenges: people are always cutting fibre optic lines when they dig – and the whole territory can go down for a day or more. That Rogers outage that shut everything down across Canada this summer where everyone panicked? It happens all the time up North. We don’t get snow days, so for me, it’s kind of a version of a snow day when it happens – year-round.
  1. Many Indigenous communities are self-governing. The way things are run from place to place is an important consideration. You have to know how to properly engage with the community you are looking to serve for your solution to be accepted.

Any other guidance you can offer applicants who aren’t from the North?  

Embrace the fact that working with Northern and remote communities is a learning curve. Life is different. The infrastructure is different. It takes more of everything to work in the North. More time. More money. More effort. More energy. More patience and more ability to respond to the changing conditions of the land.  

And if you don’t already have strong connections in the North, take the time to build trust. People often wear multiple hats, and you might end up talking to one person in three different capacities – as the chair of the co-op, the director of housing, and a student at the local campus. So ultimately, it’s important to be kind.  

Do things at the pace of the community, work with the resources the community has, and be open to the knowledge of the North. You can’t just come in and impose solutions. Because even ideas that work great in other regions – say prefabricated homes designed for Northern Ontario – won’t necessarily succeed in the territories.  

Part of my role is to help bridge connection and understanding with this challenge, and I’m so grateful that I get to be part of this. To ask questions and assist people in thinking about things they might not have considered if they’re coming from a Southern experience. 

What are your hopes for the Challenge?  

I’m excited to see concrete solutions for housing that address some of the fundamental challenges Northern and remote communities face. A lot of applications came in for the first stage of the Challenge and I love that people are interested in doing work with the North and in the North. I’m looking forward to seeing who makes it to Stage 2, where their ideas might apply and how I can help them succeed with their vision.  

A big thank you to Amanda and all our partners for helping our applicants succeed in developing solutions to Northern and remote housing challenges. For more on the valuable work of our partners and collaborators read The Idea Incubator: everything you need to know about the Northern Ideas Development Program 

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