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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Officials pushed minister for power to enforce building code on reserves

OTTAWA - Government officials are pushing for new laws that would let Ottawa enforce construction standards on residential homes and infrastructure built in First Nations communities, a newly released document shows.

A note was prepared for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt last summer that proposed legislation to let the federal government enforce the national building code — or comparable construction standards — on reserves.

Neither the national nor provincial building codes can be enforced by the federal government in First Nations communities — which, according to a federal watchdog, could result in sub-standard construction done by unqualified workers that is not properly inspected.

"Without a legally enforceable building code framework, there is ongoing concern that infrastructure and housing is not being built and maintained to code," the July 31 note says.

"The department's community infrastructure branch (CIB) is preparing a decision note proposing the development of legislation to support improved code compliance on reserve."

The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.

Since 1983, any new reserve construction built with federal money has had to meet the national building code. However, it is up to each band chief and council to ensure everything is up to code — something that is not always done, according to the federal auditor general.

In her April 2003 report, then-auditor general Sheila Fraser raised concerns over whether construction on reserves actually met building code requirements.

"While some First Nations have their own inspectors, others rely on tribal councils or inspection services controlled by First Nations," she wrote. "However, it is not always clear to what extent these inspections ensure compliance with the national building code.

"We found that requirements for First Nations to provide the department with inspection reports vary from region to region. With the exception of one region, most inspection reports that we reviewed did not demonstrate that the housing complied with the national building code.

"We are concerned that without adequate inspection systems on reserves, there is a high risk that dwellings constructed and renovated with departmental subsidies will not meet the required standards."

Substandard housing on reserves remains a problem. In late 2011, the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency as dozens of people living in inadequate housing were left exposed to the bitter cold. Many residents were living in temporary shelters that lacked running water and electricity.

The 2011 crisis set off lingering tensions with the federal government. Those tensions reached a new level with the release of a scathing audit of the band's books that found a missing paper trail for millions of dollars between 2005 and 2011.

Asked whether legislation might be forthcoming and what such measures might cost, Valcourt's office ignored the questions in a response that did not directly address the issue of the federal government enforcing building codes on reserves.

"The health and safety of all Canadians is a priority of this government," spokeswoman Erica Meekes wrote in an email.

"We continue to look at ways to extend the legal protections that exist for all Canadians to First Nations living on reserve."

Last month, a Senate committee heard from two members of the First Nations National Building Officers Association. One of them, Keith Maracle, described the plight of inspectors trying to enforce building codes.

"We have a really hard time getting building codes administered at the First Nation level because the building inspector has no authority," he told the committee.

"I go into a community and look at a house and write a report that there is something wrong. When I go back the next time, it is still the same way — nothing was done. The contractor was paid and on his way and now we have another dilapidated house — built dilapidated to start with.

"One of our problems is that First Nations don't see themselves as having the authority to control that and it is a very hard thing to get them to do. That is why we have been making these presentations."

Maracle did not return a message left Tuesday.

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