After decade-long struggle, the Kijaté Indigenous housing project nears completion

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A ceremony held June 21 at the Val-d’Or Aboriginal Day celebrations commemorated the Kijaté Project, a social housing initiative aimed at creating affordable housing for Indigenous families living in the Val-d’Or area. But it was a long time coming. According to local Native Friendship Centre Executive Director Edith Cloutier, the effort to create the project began almost a decade ago.

“There were many obstacles and challenges along the way,” Cloutier told the Nation. “But we’re currently in the selection process and will finally be moving families in by the end of February, beginning of March.”

For Cloutier, the journey was both a microcosm for Val-d’Or’s issues with racism and a tremendous learning experience.

In 2009, the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) was granted the right to build 24 units of social housing for the city’s Indigenous community by the Société d’habitation du Québec (SHQ). But they still needed to raise some of the funding themselves and create a critical partnership.

“The first partner you need for any such initiative to come to fruition is city hall,” said Cloutier. “The city usually provides land and municipal tax exemption, as well as a subsidiary program to help with rent for the low-income occupants.”

However, VNFC met their first roadblock when they approached former mayor Fernand Trahan and city council.

“The mayor opposed the initiative by saying we would be creating a form of ghetto for Indigenous people in the city,” said Cloutier. “He also argued that, because the housing was dedicated to the Indigenous population, we were actually discriminating against the non-Indigenous population of Val-d’Or.”

The mayor and city council’s opposition to the initiative was taken all the way to the Human Rights Commission of Quebec. There, the commission ruled in favour of the Kijaté Project, stating that, if housing for the elderly wasn’t discrimination, than neither was housing for another population segment.

“We won that round, but we still faced prejudice and discrimination at the bureaucratic level,” Cloutier said.

By that time a municipal election was on the horizon and the eventual winner, Pierre Corbeil, was a former Quebec cabinet minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

“During the election campaign we were able to raise the profile of the project. That’s where it became a priority,” noted Cloutier. “Having a person with a better understanding of the socio-economic realities of Indigenous people definitely helped.”

But from there, the initiative found itself stalled in bureaucratic purgatory until the crisis of 2015. “To deal with the crisis, emergency measures were presented, and one of them was to push forward the Kijaté Project that had been stalled in the SHQ’s system for years,” said Cloutier. “On November 4, 2015, it was announced that the government would support getting the Kijaté Project built.”

For Cloutier, the whole ordeal has strengthened her resolve.

“We’re always having to be on the cutting edge of social innovation because, as Indigenous people, we are outside the box,” Cloutier explained. “Governments want to file our issues under the same umbrella as immigrants. But we have a very different relationship with Canada, and in our difference there’s also strength and resilience.”

In the end, the project received just over $2 million in funding from the governments of Canada and Quebec, the City of Val-d’Or provided close to $1.2 million, and Kijaté Project took out a mortgage of just over $5.5 million, secured by the SHQ.

Tenants will be under the Rent Supplement program, which assures they will only have to pay 25% of their income as rent. The rest will be subsidised by the SHQ (90%) and Val-d’Or (10%). The revenue generated by the occupants’ rent goes to pay off the mortgage of the building.

Construction on the Kijaté Project began in January 2017 and will be completed by the end of January 2018. Contracts were given specifically to companies from the Val-d’Or and Abitibi region, and is an example of the Indigenous community investing in the Val-d’Or community, according to Cloutier.

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