Volunteers Building Home on Champagne-Aishihik Land

Last winter Terry Rufiange-Holway took an extra week of vacation. When he got back on the job as Champagne-Aishihik housing director, an exciting new opportunity to provide housing came across his desk.

Rufiange-Holway learned that a partnership had been reached between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and Habitat for Humanity Canada. The goal was to provide home ownership for low-income citizens on reserves and settlement lands in Canada.

Rufiange-Holway got in touch with the national manager of the Aboriginal housing program for Habitat Canada.

“Next thing I knew I met Stu and became a member of the Habitat Yukon board,” Rufiange-Holway says.

Stu is Stu Mackay, the executive director for the Yukon arm of Habitat for Humanity. Mackay has been integral to the formation of a partnership between Habitat and the Champagne-Aishihik First Nations (CAFN).

Mackay, Rufiange-Holway and representatives from all levels of native and non-native government signed an agreement last April to build a home on CAFN settlement lands, the first such Habitat home in Canada.

“Habitat fills a niche”, says Mackay. “People who can afford to go to the bank, purchase a home, or purchase and build their home — that’s taken care of through the traditional models. Habitat fills that niche for people who might be on the upper-end of social housing. They’re working, but the can’t meet any of the criteria to get a mortgage from a bank.”

Rufiange-Holway knows what that cycle is like.

The CAFN have been self-governing for nearly 20 years, but most of its citizens are renting housing and regardless of the housing quality, renting is a losing game.

“Currently I’m the only Champagne-Aishihik citizen that has home ownership on our settlement lands,” says Rufiange-Holway. “It’s a new process and it’s a big learning curve to understand what the responsibilities of home ownership are after being in social housing for so many years. I think that this is going to be a big turning point.”

While an agreement was in place on the national level in January 2012, the smaller details of partnership between Habitat Yukon and the CAFN still needed to be ironed out. It was during this process that Rufiange-Holway reaped the benefits of being a member of both organizations.

“It really made it a lot easier being on both sides, so I could provide information and be a real liaison-type person.”

On April 19 Habitat Yukon and the CAFN agreed to build a triplex in the Takhini River Subdivision. Representatives from Habitat’s national office, the Assembly of First Nations and the Council of Yukon First Nations were on hand to provide secondary signatures to the agreement.

Signatures on a piece of paper are nice, but they are not a house. The project had to wait until June 20 before ground was broken on-site and construction could begin.

Mackay stresses that while Habitat projects like this one are designed to get people into houses, they are by no means giving them away.

Potential homeowners must first meet three criteria. They must be in need of decent housing as determined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. They must be able to afford Habitat’s no down-payment, zero-interest mortgage. Finally, they need to put some work in.

“You have to give 500 sweat-equity hours”, explains Mackay. “For some people it’s working on the site and helping out that way. Some people it may not be possible, a single mom that’s got kids at home and so on. But you can volunteer with community groups and we accept those hours. If your family’s helping you, those hours get added in, if your aunt and uncle come in, those hours get put in as well.”

By September 9th, the Takhini triplex still didn’t look much like a house. Five days and a small army of volunteers later, all the exterior walls for the building were framed, raised into position and installed.

“That was the National Leadership Council as well as members from Habitat Canada, Habitat Yukon, RCMP, Yukon College, a lot of different organizations”, says Rufiange-Holway. “Champagne-Aishihik leadership, citizens and staff, all of them came together.”

Sophie Green was one of those volunteers. Herself a member of the CAFN, she looks for projects and activities that can help strengthen her community.

“I never had the opportunity to learn as much as I did when it comes to home building,” says Green. “The volunteers enjoyed themselves and the weather was most cooperative with a few chilled mornings.”

Although construction has halted for the winter, construction on the Takhini River triplex will begin again in the spring, with a view to finishing the house before summer. Habitat Yukon is continuing the process of finding the right families for the triplex.

“I think the real highlight is when the families get to move in,” Mackay says. “I think they’ve identified two families that are very good and they’re in the process of identifying the third family.”

Yukon College is also providing carpentry training for community members where they live – this is the first time such a program is offered outside Whitehorse. Rufiange-Holway sees this as a chance to not only build skills, but to keep them at home.

“That’s taking the training to the individuals in the community,” he says. “It’s a long-term program there that’s not only going to provide additional capacity development, but additional homes, home-ownership, self-reliance. It’s all win, it’s just all win. And this is the first house of many.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with Habitat Yukon can visit www.HabitatYukon.org/Volunteer and fill out a volunteer form. Volunteers will get notices for upcoming Habitat events and activities. No building experience is required, and volunteers are needed in every capacity, whether it’s working on site, helping to fund-raise or working on newsletters.

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