• By: Dan Donovan

Will Trudeau Government Act on Innovative National Affordable Housing Program Proposed by Former Liberal MP Dennis Mills in 2016

As Canadians struggle with the staggering impact of a severe housing crisis, many are rightly pointing fingers at the government for its mismanagement of housing in Canada since being elected in 2015.

As the Liberal government desperately tries to deal with the worst housing crisis in Canadian history, stories are coming out about some of the missed opportunities and, at times, the government’s incompetence on the file over the past eight years.

It’s disheartening to learn that one project in particular, put forward in 2016 to deal with housing issues faced by seniors, was largely ignored.

Former MP Dennis Mills, a seasoned Liberal parliamentarian with 16 years of service and an advisor to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, presented a groundbreaking national affordable housing idea to Toronto area Liberal MPs Nathaniel Erskine Smith and Adam Vaughn in 2016. Mills asked Erskine Smith to personally deliver a letter from him to Prime Minister Trudeau in the Chamber of the House of Commons laying out the broad aspects of the innovative housing program.

Mills was a very popular downtown Toronto MP (Toronto-Danforth) from 1988-2004 with a reputation as a doer who delivered and got big things done. These included organizing the Pope’s visit to Canada in 2002;  putting on the Rolling Stones Sars concert in 2003 (the largest music event in Canadian history) to help Toronto cover from Sars; organizing three family farm events that led to billions being invested by the federal government in Canadian family farm supports between 1997 and 2004; serving as  Chair of the Dennis Mills,  Sub-Committee on the Study of Sport in Canada in 1999 — a groundbreaking report that changed the trajectory of funding and supports for amateur sport in Canada that has proven so valuable for the success of Canadian Olympians and other athletes over the past three decades. Mills handily defeated the late Jack Layton in Toronto-Danforth in the 1997 election. In the 2004 election, when Layton was NDP leader, he barely squeaked by Mills, winning the riding that year. However, the NDP did not win against any other ridings in the GTA as they put all their efforts into supporting Layton to defeat Mills.

Erskine-Smith personally handed the letter from Mills to Prime Minister Trudeau in the House of Commons in December 2016. It presented a visionary initiative called the Royal Canadian Legion Housing Development program. It involved leveraging excess land owned by the 1,400 Legions across Canada and converting it into affordable housing units. Mills believed this strategy, exemplified by the Victoria Manor Legion in British Columbia, could be replicated nationwide, ultimately resulting in the construction of 150,000 affordable units – the largest affordable housing project in Canadian history. Mills never got a response to his letter from Trudeau or his staff. He kept pushing for the program with Legions and stakeholders across Canada.

Last summer, Mills learned that his former colleague Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Veterans Affairs, would be in the Muskoka area on business, and he invited him to attend an event in Bala to show him how this innovative housing program could work and be rolled out across Canada. MacAulay said he loved the idea and would follow up with officials, but like Trudeau, Vaughn and Erskine-Smith before him, nothing happened.

Ironically, Erskine-Smith recently ran for the provincial Liberal leadership losing to Mississauga mayor and former MP Bonnie Crombie. He spent much of his campaign criticizing Premier Doug Ford over housing issues. Erskine-Smith’s solution to the housing crisis was to create a provincially owned construction agency to build new affordable housing. In other words, create more bureaucracy instead of just building homes or championing innovative proposals put forward by people like Dennis Mills.


The Forgotten Proposal Revised:

The fact that the government of Prime Minister Trudeau has ignored this potentially transformative idea, which could be the catalyst for a groundbreaking affordable housing initiative, has not fazed Dennis Mills. “It is as relevant today as it was eight years ago, in fact, even more so given the crisis, says Mills.”

He adds, “In my letter to the PM in December 2016, I pointed out the long-standing challenge of executing national ideas, even when funding is available. That’s why I called for the establishment of a special unit to oversee the Royal Canadian Legion Housing Development Program. It may have fallen on deaf ears then, but it appears the government is seized with the housing issue now, so I am hopeful they will take a real look at how effective this program could be in helping to address the housing and affordability crisis in Canada for senior and others,” said Mills.

Mills observed that for any government, it is important to translate promising ideas into tangible solutions. “Governments are measured and judged by their ability to bridge the gap between words and actions,” says Mills. “Come election time, the issue will be, did you do what you said you were going to do? Did you get it done?” says Mills.

The Royal Canadian Legion Housing Development program doesn’t have to be a missed opportunity, says Mills. “All they have to do is hit the on button, and it’s ready to go.”


Header photo: Albert Pego, iStock