Aboriginal Affairs is planning reductions in first nation housing for the next four years, government documents tabled with the House of Commons show.
However, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., which runs a separate envelope of funding for reserves, is planning to gradually increase subsidies for building and renovating homes over the next few years.
The end result is a relatively stagnant and unreliable pool of funding despite mounting costs and a rapidly growing population, chiefs say.
"We have to try to make do with what is there. It's the same level of funding year after year," says Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario.
"We have to keep in mind that there are escalating costs to doing business — the increased costs of goods as well as the population increases that are at a rapid rate among first nations people."
The federal Conservatives argue the money for housing has been plentiful in recent years, and will continue to flow as usual.
But according to the documents, the Aboriginal Affairs department expects to spend an average of $146-million annually for on-reserve housing every year for the next four fiscal years, according to the documents.
That's down from a recent peak of $255-million in 2006-2007, and lower than the $200-million spent in 2009, and the $219-million in 2010.
Those last two years include an extra boost in funding that came through the government's recession-fighting stimulus plan. Now that the stimulus money is expiring, however, on-reserve funding is not returning to its previous levels, the departmental documents show.
The numbers were tabled in response to a question from Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett asking for a complete total of funds for on-reserve housing, in the past and in the future.
While the numbers came directly from the department of Aboriginal Affairs, a note from the departmental spokeswoman on Friday said repeatedly that the base funding for housing is not falling. Rather, dips in annual amounts come from the expiry of a top-up from the previous Liberal government, and then the expiry of a top-up that came through the Conservative stimulus plan.
"To be clear, AANDC base funding for on-reserve housing has been maintained," Genevieve Guibert wrote, pointing to a wide variety of sources of funding.
Over at CMHC, subsidies for construction, renovation and capacity development are budgeted to total $156.3 million in this fiscal year, rising to $180.2 million by 2014-2015. That's compared to about $132 million in pre-stimulus annual spending, according to the figures tabled in the House.
The emphasis on CMHC funding comes from policy changes made in 2008 designed to give First Nations more flexibility in the way they fund housing, said Conservative MP Greg Rickford, the parliamentary secretary for aboriginal affairs.
"I don't support the notion that there are diminishing resources going into homes. I think to the contrary there's a commitment (to) build more homes and renovate more homes," Mr. Rickford said in an interview this week from Thunder Bay, Ont.
He said federal funding supports renovations of 3000 on-reserve homes every year, and the building of more than 2000 houses a year.
The backlog for on-reserve housing is about 80,000 units, according to the Assembly of First Nations. As a result, many families live in substandard or even condemned housing, or crowd into small homes that they share with extended family.
In Attawapiskat, Ont., where a housing crisis has forced dozens of families into construction trailers or wood-frame tents with no plumbing, the backlog is almost 300 homes, says Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council that includes Attawapiskat and other James Bay reserves.
The other First Nations communities in his area have long waiting lists too, with 200 houses needed in Kashechewan and about 150 in the Moose Cree reserve, Mr. Louttit said.
He said it's true that the CMHC funding has given some First Nations families more flexibility in how they finance their housing, and many are taking advantage of the new ways to pay for their homes.
But he says the distribution of that CMHC money to various reserves is somewhat arbitrary, and done once a year. Bands can't count on it coming in specific amounts any particular year.
For a community like Attawapiskat, he said a cut in Aboriginal Affairs funding would hurt the band's capital budget for housing, which is already stretched into crisis territory.
Relying on CMHC increases is risky because it's unreliable, he said, and he has yet to hear the federal government articulate an overarching plan that would bring sense of all the funding streams and also confront the housing crisis.
"That's not a very good way for the government to deal with the crisis," Mr. Louttit said. "We haven't yet seen any kind of plan."
Ms. Guibert, the departmental spokeswoman, said the government spends a grand total of about $409 million each year on aboriginal housing, between Aboriginal Affairs and CMHC.
That figure coincides with figures tabled in the House of Commons for 2009 and 2010, when the stimulus plan was in full swing. But for 2011-12, the total drops to $302 million, rising very gradually to $315 million in 2013-14. And that's still a far cry from the total of $389 million in 2006-07.