Big turnout for housing conference

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Upwards of 400 participants arrived in Thunder Bay at the Valhalla Inn this week to take part in the 20th annual First Nations Housing Conference, hosted by the First Nations Housing Community.

Event organizer Jonathan Gregg says this year saw the biggest participant turnout on record for the conference and he credits that to their return after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re just happy to gather again and this year we have our builders challenge back,” Gregg said. “We’re focusing on home maintenance — how to do home maintenance repairs.”

Live competitions, which involve participants taking part in a variety of home renovation challenges from door repairs to plumbing, kept things interesting over the three-day expo which winds up today.

Gregg explained a key segment of the conference is providing technical, administrative and leadership training to participants.

“And it’s all related to housing because to work with the government, we see the programs are changing each year a little bit,” he said. “We are just making sure that they’re able to apply for funding from the government and we want to give some of the builders some tools (skills) to build some quality homes.”

He added that another important (conference) component is providing networking with building suppliers and manufactured home suppliers to make those connections for opportunities in their communities.

“It’s hard for people to come out from up North and bring everybody together,” he said. “The networking part of the conference is huge for the people in the remote communities.”

Gregg says there is a lot of thought and planning to host the housing conference. Organizers work directly with the First Nations in the region to identify problems and gather feedback from the communities to incorporate into the housing conference.

The conference is funded by Indigenous Services Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and a few private investors, most of whom have an exhibit at the event.

“When we have government representatives here, we have them as presenters to promote their programs,” Gregg said. “We know there’s not enough funding, but it’s a good way for us to make sure that each First Nation is getting an equal opportunity for those opportunities that come up from both federal and provincial governments for housing dollars.”

The anticipated mining and energy boom has Indigenous community doors open for communication on industry development.

“A lot of people that deal with housing, capital projects and associations that come to our event here, may already be involved and may have to work with mining companies in the region,” he said.

“We know that mining is going to be booming here in the next few years. There are many exploration mining companies (in various stages of) development. The First Nations know that we have to be prepared for some of this onslaught of needs. . . . So we have open doors for discussions and to meet people for that future planning.”

Gregg is skeptical about northern mining companies building homes in First Nation communities and says mining companies tend to build living spaces right on their site or in larger cities like Thunder Bay or Sault Ste. Marie.

As for the construction of building structures for businesses, “Yeah, that’s a hard one,” Gregg said. “Just the way the market is through Canada, it seems like large distributors are staying where they are. It’s very hard to see what’s going to happen in regards to development in Northwestern Ontario.”

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal