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Ahousaht First Nation breaks ground on Port Alberni housing project

Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society plans 35-unit building on Cedarwood Street

After almost six years of delays, the Ahousaht-led Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society broke ground on a new project in Port Alberni on Friday, April 5. The four-storey, 35-unit building will provide housing to Ahousaht First Nation members who live in the Alberni Valley.

Members of Ahousaht First Nation have been living in the Alberni Valley since the 1960s—through four generations, says Wally Samuel, president of Citaapi Mahtii Housing Society and Ahousaht elder. “Our Ahousaht people started moving here in the ’60s; they came here for employment and housing and health reasons, especially when fishing died down on the west coast,” he said.

Many were sent to the residential school in Port Alberni and stayed in the city. Their home is on the west coast of Vancouver Island, on Flores Island, only accessible by boat or plane.

“For years it’s been on our agenda” to address housing for those members not living in their own territory, he said, adding that Ahousaht have always worked well with Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations as well as Port Alberni City Hall. “They’ve all worked together with us for many years.”

Citaapi Mahtii will feature a four-storey wood-frame building with a mix of 35 affordable units ranging from studio apartments to four-bedroom units. The site will also include a playground, outdoor gathering centre and cultural centre for teachings, activities, events and celebrations.

The units are primarily for Ahousaht citizens and will give them “a culturally safe, secure home,” Samuel said. One unit will be made available to Tseshaht First Nation and another to Hupacasath First Nation for housing, he added.

The provincial government, through BC Housing, contributed $6.4 million toward the project. The City of Port Alberni provided the land, valued at $580,400 and the federal government contributed as well.

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said the pieces “fell into place” with this development. Former Ahousaht Chief Councillor Greg Louie and his council had looked at eight or nine different sites within the city for possible development and the Cedarwood Street lot wasn’t on the list. Minions told Samuel that the group operating a youth centre in an old school on the lot had just returned the building to the city, so it was available. The school has since been demolished.

Ahousaht officials had already met with Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations officials to share their wishes to build housing in their unceded territories.

Minions praised the cooperation from all parties in realizing the project to this point. “There was such a desire from every single person at that table to make this happen and a recognition of the importance of this project…I think this is a model in how we can all work together in such an effective way.”

The federal government, through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, provided $150,000 in seed funding.

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns said that’s not enough, especially considering non-market housing is less than a third of what it was in the late 1980s. “We’re in a G7 country. When we look at the late ’80s, 10 percent of our housing was non-market housing. We didn’t have homeless people living everywhere. People had safe, secure housing,” he said. “We’re at 3.5 percent and this is what it looks like.”

He congratulated B.C. for building “half the non-market housing in this country,” and said “we need the federal government to meet them where they’re at so we can end this tragedy that’s happening.”

“This is a big step for Ahousaht,” said Agnes Keitlah, a board member with Port Alberni Friendship Center. She said members of Ahousaht First Nation have been living with other family members in cramped conditions, and some with special needs have struggled to find accommodation.

“I see this housing to be a big plus for reconciliation. I think it’s amazing.”

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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