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Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab Report - CMHC - COVER

Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs: a new approach to tackling complex Indigenous housing challenges

Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab Report - CMHC - COVER

The Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab is a CMHC funded program led by Ecotrust Canada’s Indigenous Home-Lands (IHL) Initiative in partnership with RADIUS-SFU, Huu-ay-aht First Nations, and the Tŝilhqot’in Nation.

While housing challenges are pervasive and similar across many Indigenous communities in British Columbia and Canada, the solutions needed to resolve them vary. Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs recognize that local grassroots approaches rooted in social innovation are a part of what is needed to tackle the complex challenges facing Indigenous communities.

Utilizing lessons learned from completed Solutions Labs, this report speaks to the process and how it can be adapted to suit the unique circumstances of different Indigenous groups. It is designed to serve as a tool that Indigenous groups can use to design and initiate their own Solutions Labs in ways that are appropriate to their needs, values, and visions.

Ecotrust Canada’s Indigenous Home-Lands is an Indigenous partnership-driven initiative with the goal of addressing complex and inter-related housing and community development challenges within and across Indigenous communities in British Columbia and Canada. The underlying question guiding the IHL and its Solution Lab process is:

“How might a systems-based approach remove barriers and create pathways toward integrated, sustainable, healthy housing development in Indigenous communities?”

What is an Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab?

Solutions Labs are an innovative approach to tackling complex societal and community challenges that require transformative systems change. They can be referred to as social innovation labs, design labs, or change labs, and the idea is to take an evidence-based planning and decision-making approach with the help of innovative methods and tools.

Although social innovation has been applied to housing challenges before, Ecotrust Canada’s Indigenous Home-Lands Initiative and our partners have sought to apply solutions labs thinking to the unique challenge of Indigenous housing.

We define Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs as a structured, community-driven approach to identifying challenges, testing ideas, evaluating potential and sharing possibilities in terms of community governance innovations that enable the building of culturally appropriate housing stock and local economies in Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab Report - CMHC - COVERDownload the Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab Report (2021)


The Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab process ensures that Indigenous values and community priorities are clearly understood and are integrated into future housing policies, programs, and initiatives, ultimately leading to housing systems-change.

The goal is to develop self-determined sustainable housing strategies, economic opportunities and to build support systems within Indigenous communities, for and by community members themselves.

Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs are driven by the following objectives:

  • Increase dialogue between Indigenous individuals and their leaders/governments to ensure that diverse needs are recognized, and novel ideas surfaced, and integrated into housing strategies.
  • Creating the space for facilitated conversations, brainstorming, and action by and with Indigenous community members.
  • Building bridges and connections between communities, individuals, experts, and practitioners.
  • Empower community members to implement housing solutions themselves.
  • Create and contribute to an Indigenous Social Innovation and Solutions Lab community and network by publicly sharing research, knowledge, and lessons learned through accessible mediums.

Guiding Principles

Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs are guided by the following six principles, which seek to address and acknowledge the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

  1. Acknowledge diversityDevelop a process that addresses and respects the diverse nature of Indigenous communities. The unique context of every community will inform the starting point of the process.
  2. Honour Indigenous history & context — Honour and incorporate the community’s strategic goals and principles informed by the Nation’s rich history and traditions.
  3. Community-driven process & planning — Use Indigenous knowledge and expertise to promote inclusive community-led outcomes. Co-develop the process with the community and promote mutual learning.
  4. Decolonize content — Develop appropriate, tangible, and action-oriented content with practical tools to guide the process. Promote innovative ways of presenting information using visual tools and alternative mediums.
  5. Sustainable outcomesDevelop sustainable solutions that respond to both immediate needs and long-term visions and goals.
  6. Uphold Indigenous methodologies — Centre relationship building as a key outcome of the process. Uphold Indigenous values, principles, and protocols to develop culturally appropriate methodologies. Promote an inclusive and holistic approach that addresses the community’s cultural, spiritual, social, physical, and mental well-being.

The Process

The process described here seeks to offer a high-level, practical and realistic step-by-step explanation of an Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab. Every process will be different for each community, including the progress made. Often terrific ideas will not see the light of day, but this does not mean that the process was a failure. Given the challenges facing Indigenous communities around housing, creating the space for open dialogue and idea development by members is an important and valuable starting place.

Conventional solutions labs follow a four-step process to Define, Discover, Develop, and Deliver solutions relevant to the unique needs of Indigenous communities.

Figure 1.1 shows the initial process diagram followed for a Solutions Lab process. 


In an effort to decolonize the process, IHL and partners developed a diagram that more appropriately illustrates an Indigenous Housing Solutions Lab, as learned through our joint lab process.

Figure 1.2 shows the new process.


This process diagram is inspired by the lessons learned from the Huu-ay-aht First Nation Solutions Lab and the Tŝilhqot’in National Government Solutions Lab. This can be adapted to suit the unique context of different Indigenous communities.

The Process

Phase 1 — Define
  • Identify a core team of people with diverse interests and expertise to steer the solutions lab process with the community.
  • Obtain funding for the labs process, and ideally for the implementation of solutions.
  • Develop a work plan and protocol agreement within the core team.
  • Define the primary challenge, which can be very broad at this point, to be focused on throughout the lab.
Phase 2 — Discover
  • Carry out background and community-based research — learn from all of the work that has already been done in the community.
  • Identify key partners and potential participants.
  • Develop a culturally appropriate and inclusive engagement and outreach strategy.
  • Deliver a first engagement session that is a safe space for community members to share their needs, stories, and big ideas.
  • Engage the core team and the participants to prioritize ideas and set a focused direction for next steps.
Phase 3 — Develop
  • Carry out more engagement workshops aimed toward refinement of ideas and developing potential solutions.
  • Develop pilot projects and activities related to the solutions with the core team and participants.
  • If possible, begin to test those ideas in small ways.
Phase 4 — Deliver
  • Further refine potential solutions identified and tested through the previous stages.
  • Solidify solutions that reflect community strengths and create a roadmap.
  • Explore the opportunity to work with members of the community on delivering long-term solutions.
  • Knowledge mobilization — share learnings in the form of visual materials and videos of the Solutions Lab process first internally, and then with the broader Indigenous Social Innovation and Solutions Lab community.

Virtual Labs

Community engagement is a significant part of the Indigenous Solutions Lab process. Providing a safe and comfortable space for the participants to share their insights and experiences is crucial. Although face-to-face engagements are desirable, virtual discussions are completely feasible, and can even be beneficial as they allow individuals to participate from the comfort of their homes, sometimes resulting in increased participation.

With the ongoing pandemic, the Housing Solutions Lab workshops were done virtually via Zoom.


When conducting workshops virtually, the listening circle is an effective tool for creating trust and comfort among participants. All of the non-Indigenous participants turn off their cameras to allow for a safe space for the Indigenous community members to share their stories and thoughts with one another.

Feedback surveys are another key tool for the success and iterative improvement of virtual workshops. At the end of each workshop, participants confidentially share their thoughts on the process, which can help the core team better plan for activities and events.

Case study – 1

Tŝilhqot’in Housing Solutions Lab

The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is comprised of approximately 4,000 people across the six communities of Yuneŝit’in, Tl’etinqox, ʔEsdilagh, Tŝideldel, Tl’esqox, and Xeni Gwet’in. The Tŝilhqot’in are leading the way in enacting new Indigenous institutions to govern their lands in line with their traditional laws and values, which supports the Tŝilhqot’in vision for an economic future, including the creation of a self-determined housing system.

Housing has been recognized as a critical priority by the Tŝilhqot’in Chiefs and citizens, with efforts underway to create a Tŝilhqot’in Housing Authority at the Nation level to improve the standard of living for the people of Tŝilhqot’in, and to ensure equitable housing outcomes between the Nation, Canada, and BC.

Driving Question:

How can the Tŝilhqot’in Nation build a collaborative, supportive, and unified housing strategy while allowing for the self-determination of each of the six Tŝilhqot’in communities?

Key Opportunities:
  • To develop a collaborative process at the Nation level.
  • To shape future initiatives related to housing at the community and Nation level.
  • To create new tools and processes related to collaborative, innovative problem-solving for Indigenous housing.
The Process

The core team carried out preliminary research, discussions, and brainstorming over a series of planning sessions to understand the Tŝilhqot’in context and to inform the workshops and solutions that were collectively pursued throughout the “develop” phase of the Lab process via three citizen workshops.

Three online workshops were held with Tŝilhqot’in members and staff. The first workshop focused on ‘housing knowledge, information sharing, and communication’. The second workshop focused more specifically on ‘communicating housing’, and the third workshop focused on ‘housing relationships and processes’.

Although a broad theme of ‘housing communication’ cut through all the workshops, the challenges, ideas, and solutions that emerged were diverse and nuanced. This speaks toward the complex and integrated nature of housing, and is consistent with the Tŝilhqot’in understanding and vision of housing as a part of a broader system of community well-being.

Multiple engagement tools, used during the Lab workshops, ensured participant involvement in a virtual setting. The online MIRO board was successfully used to capture real-time comments and feedback from the community and allowed for process transparency.

Illustrations were shared throughout the workshop to reflect the ideas and challenges raised by participants, and to prototype new approaches to communicate information.

The Challenges and Solutions

The series of workshops allowed participants to explore the unique challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions to address housing across the Tŝilhqot’in Nation. Two major themes emerged from the process.

01 Housing Communications

One of the primary challenges identified and the main theme throughout the labs series was ‘housing communications’. Despite efforts to develop new ways of communicating, many Tŝilhqot’in members are still unaware of housing processes, requirements, activities, etc. In particular, members often aren’t aware of housing funding processes nor the true cost of housing.

New ways of communicating housing, which recognize and respect different ways of learning, are needed. What became clear from the labs was the desire for ‘decolonized’ housing communications that include increased informal interactions and sharing between those working on housing, and more visual and illustrative communications related to housing.

Some potential solutions generated:

  • Establish Housing Committees (in all communities) that meet to learn and understand housing updates and policies, and who can effectively spread information via word-of-mouth.
  • More consistent and focused community meetings on housing. These meetings are a successful way to convey news and information, especially now because of COVID-19 isolation, people want to attend meetings and are asking about them for social interactions.
  • A Tŝilhqot’in Housing Information Hub.
  • An infographic or illustration on where the money goes, i.e., the Circle of (housing) Well-Being .
02 — Housing Governance

Housing governance was not supposed to be the theme of the Solutions Labs, but because it is so central to both housing challenges and solutions it inevitably was a dominant point of discussion. Many of the key challenges around housing governance stem from the century-old imposed Indian Act-band housing administration system. The goal of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation is to move away from this model to something more self-determined, central, and unified.

Some potential solutions generated:

  • An illustrated housing policy (community specific or at the Nation level) with drawings.
  • Participatory housing policy development workshops — building policy from the ground up.
  • Participatory exercises elaborating rights and responsibilities related to land and housing ‘use’ and ‘ownership’.
  • A blueprint process (for housing policy) at the TNG level that can be easily adapted to each individual community.
  • Processes that put more housing decision-making power into the Housing Committees.
  • Processes that put more housing decision-making power into families and/or groups of families.
  • More support for housing managers — prevent the position from being a bottleneck.

Case study – 2

HFN Housing Solutions Lab

Huu-ay-aht First Nations (HFN) is a self-governing, modern treaty Nation whose lands are located on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, at the entrance to the Alberni Inlet. Currently, approximately 10% of Huu-ay-aht citizens live in the traditional settlement of Anacla, with 40% living in Port Alberni, and the rest dispersed across other cities outside of Huu-ay-aht ḥahuułi or territory.

Huu-ay-aht has set the ambitious goal of having at least half of its citizens return to live in the traditional village of Anacla, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island near Bamfield by 2033.

Although lack of housing is one of the main obstacles keeping HFN citizens from returning to the ḥahuułi, there is also an understanding that housing developments need to be considered alongside broader community development goals, particularly in relation to employment and the building of a resilient local economy

Driving Question:

“How to (re)build Anacla in an integrated way in which economic opportunities, employment, and housing are considered as complementary and reinforcing processes and outcomes.”

Key Opportunities:
  • To enable citizens to get the support that they need in relation to housing in the ḥahuułi.
  • To assist ‘independent and capable members’ in re-building housing, and the Huu-ay-aht economy.
  • To determine property or ownership structures, which are appropriate for HFN citizens in the ḥahuułi.
  • To ensure that citizens voices, needs, and ideas are being included in housing and lands governance processes.
The Process

The first workshop focused on how HFN citizens experienced housing and explored challenges and opportunities in relation to housing and development in the ḥahuułi. The following questions were explored:

  • What would make Bamfield/Anacla an accessible and vibrant place to call home?
  • Describe the ideal lifestyle for those living in or visiting Bamfield/Anacla.

The outcomes of the workshop were graphically captured by an Indigenous graphic recorder.

Workshop #1 Graphic Recording, produced by Nigitst’il Norbert of Drawing Change. (Ecotrust Canada)


The second workshop went deeper into the challenges and solutions for housing in Anacla, with a focus on identifying short-term and long-term solutions that the core team, along with participants, could continue to explore and enact in tandem with the lab process.

The following questions were explored through the workshop:

  • What is holding you back from building a home in Anacla?
  • What is your understanding around community and individual title land on Huu-ay-aht lands?
  • Do you have any experiences in investing in or building a home?

The third workshop sought to learn, discuss, and move toward the development of a roadmap and action by examining and co-designing:

  • The current land/housing acquisition process for citizens.
  • The ideal rights and responsibilities of citizens in relation to land/housing.
  • The creation of a Huu-ay-aht Citizens Advisory Body to ensure citizen-informed housing policies and practices in the Ḥahuułi.

The MIRO board exercise was deemed valuable in understanding the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens, citizen bodies, and the HFN government.

The Challenges and Solutions

The Solutions Lab process explored the critical challenges facing Huu-ay-aht First Nations housing development and produced three overarching themes for a solutions roadmap.

01 Integrated Housing and Economic Planning

One of the critical challenges facing Huu-ay-aht First Nations is balancing housing developments in Anacla/Bamfield with economic opportunities. This approach, which understands housing as one component of a broader ‘ecosystem’, aligns closely with one of HFN’s guiding principles: Hišuk ma c̕awak

Everything is one – A notion of the interconnected, interdependent, and reciprocal relationship between the people, the land, and the wider world(s) in a physical, spiritual, and social sense.

Some potential solutions were generated:

  • Systems approaches to housing needs assessments.
  • Prioritizing staff accommodations.
  • Housing/land incentives for entrepreneurs.
  • Construction and skills training.
  • Value-added forestry development.
02 Zoning, Community Design & Land Tenure Innovations

Zoning, community design, and land tenure innovations were viewed as critical components of a sustainable housing plan for Huu-ay-aht, and many of the solutions under this theme were viewed as high priority for citizens who want to return to the ḥahuułi.


There is potential to make changes to the existing land-use and zoning guidelines to reflect the current and future vision of HFN citizens.

Subdivision Development

With new subdivisions being developed, there is an opportunity to move away from colonial planning practices toward a culturally appropriate and community-oriented subdivision design process.

Off-Grid Living

The development of living arrangements enabling direct access to the land and increased opportunities to practice traditional activities.

03 Housing Governance

The workshops also led to a lot of discussion around citizen-empowered housing governance, including the possibility of self-organized structures.

Some of the key solutions under this theme included:

  • Collective ownership structures
  • Huu-ay-aht Housing Authority
  • Citizens Housing Advisory Body
  • Huu-ay-aht Home Owners Association

Roadmaps and Resources

Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs offer a new approach to addressing the persistent and complex housing challenges facing Indigenous communities today. Rather than pursuing incremental change via the status quo, the lab process aims to uncover and overcome some of the root issues in Indigenous housing, leading to systems-change while empowering Indigenous community members.

Transformation is a long-term process, and Indigenous Housing Solutions Labs are only a starting place. The formulation of a roadmap for the implementation of solutions is critical. This requires dedicated people to keep up the momentum of the labs, and the resources to support them.

A major theme that resonated throughout the case studies above was communicating housing. The ability to get community members informed and ‘on-board’ with plans as they come together is essential to turning ideas into reality, and ideally funding is secured at the outset of the lab process to support the testing/implementation phase of the work.

Some high-level important activities/themes to keep in mind in developing a roadmap of solutions include:

  • Securing commitments to test prototypes /ideas.
  • Building teams to work together over the medium- to long-term.
  • Integrating this approach within normal community operations — a prototyping/learning/team mindset.
  • Tracking and evaluating processes as you move into the implementation/testing phases — it is important to have a plan on how you will integrate new learnings.

Useful Resources

Innoweave funding – (small-scale) implementation funding

Noulab Playbook – open source information on how to run a solutions lab

Public Policy Lab – solutions labs case studies and resources

Designing for public services – a design-thinking report by IDEA and NESTA

National Housing Strategy Solutions Labs – funding and case studies

Ecotrust Canada and IHL Resources – socially innovative Indigenous housing knowledge products