Using Volunteer Labour

Can-Am Urban Native Homes — Windsor, Ontario


Create an energy-efficient, affordable single-family home under Habitat for Humanity’s Aboriginal Housing Program.

Target group

A low- to moderate-income urban First Nation family.


The partnership of Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex and Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes, in order to provide a home for an Aboriginal family, was the first between an Ontario Habitat affiliate and an Urban Native organization. The project, an energy-efficient, single-family home in an east Windsor neighbourhood, was constructed under the Habitat for Humanity Aboriginal Housing Program. The partner family, friends, members of the First Nation community, and other local residents joined in the construction of a 102 m² (1,100 sq. ft.) home that was completed in December 2009, after five months of work. CMHC, the Founding National Partner of Habitat’s Aboriginal Housing Program, provided Seed Funding for the project as well as money raised from staff charitable activities. The home achieved ENERGY STAR® certification, meeting the required stringent standards for increased insulation as well as energy-efficient windows, heating and cooling systems, and appliances.


Background and context

Habitat for Humanity is a worldwide non-profit, faith-based organization that mobilizes volunteers and community partners to build affordable housing. It has a goal of breaking the cycle of poverty for low-income families in need by making homeownership more attainable. Habitat for Humanity Canada has been building homes in Canada since it was founded in 1994 and, through its unique self-build and volunteer participation model, has helped over 2000 Canadian families become homeowners.

Out of concern for the severe housing conditions faced by many Aboriginal Canadians across the country, Habitat for Humanity Canada has resolved to make Aboriginal housing a priority. To act on this, it launched its Aboriginal Housing Program in September 2007 as a way to build sustainable housing for Aboriginal Canadian families, a program for which CMHC is the lead national sponsor. The program has been implemented both on- and off-reserve with housing projects carried out in partnership with Aboriginal communities and organizations including First Nations. As of the beginning of 2013, over 50 Aboriginal families in Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Yukon had benefited under the program, with plans for 15 to 20 more each year.

The Windsor-Essex affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, also founded in 1994, was strongly supportive of the Aboriginal Housing Program. The Habitat affiliate was building its 50th home in 2009 and was determined that it would be a home for an Aboriginal family. It had not, to that point, built any homes with urban First Nation families and wanted to reflect the demographic balance of the area more equally. It also felt that the project would be a good model for other communities, especially in Northern Ontario.

With this in mind, Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex approached Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes looking to partner with Can-Am in the initiative. Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes was started in 1988, through a Community Development Program, by a group of volunteers to assist the Aboriginal community in finding affordable housing in the Windsor area. Since then, Can-Am has sought to provide and maintain adequate and affordable urban housing for Aboriginal people and their families. As of early 2013, Can-Am had over 80 single-family homes and an 8 unit rental property. For this Habitat project, Can-Am provided expertise, got involved in the construction, encouraged others to do so, and selected the family who would make the house its home.

Planning and construction

The initiative began with a groundbreaking ceremony complete with First Nation drummers. Neighbours were invited and joined in the celebration. The family had already made friends in the neighbourhood, having been aware for some time that it had been selected, and a member of the family had regularly visited the site to keep it clean and cut the grass.

The home was built on a vacant residential lot in the east end of Windsor. Construction began in August 2009 and was completed in December of the same year. The family was described as “skilled and willing” by the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex and worked hard in contributing labour. The wife was on the construction site weekdays, and learned how to do everything from installing insulation and hardwood flooring to taping drywall. The husband took over on weekends.

Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes was active in enlisting volunteers. In total, more than 800 volunteer hours were contributed by friends, family and the First Nation community. Many others from the local community joined in, including some who had volunteered for Habitat for Humanity several times over the years. Students from the technical retraining courses at St. Clair College built an environmentally friendly shed for the home at the college, and installed it on the site.

Among the housewarming gifts provided to the family at the dedication were a colourful blanket, a handyman's manual from The Home Depot, yard and gardening items, and braided sweet grass in recognition of the family’s Oneida heritage. One neighbour even supplied baked goods to welcome the family.


The new home, built in five months, with labour from family and volunteers
Source: CMHC


The three-bedroom, ranch-style house measures approximately 102 m² (1,100 sq. ft.). Going up five stairs at the entrance leads to the main floor, which includes a living room, a kitchen and the three bedrooms. Going down five stairs leads to a lower level, which includes a roughed-in basement, intended to be subsequently converted to a bedroom suite for the children’s grandmother.

The home has a number of energy-saving features and achieved the ENERGY STAR® rating. Building an ENERGY STAR® home requires the involvement of a licensed energy advisor, who verifies through inspections at various stages of construction that the homes have been built to ENERGY STAR® technical specifications. The features of the home include on-demand hot water, upgraded insulation, ENERGY STAR® qualified appliances, dual-flush low-flow toilets, low-flow shower heads, as well as a drainwater heat recovery system to reduce energy consumption for domestic water heating. The features required for ENERGY STAR® qualification did not add significantly to the cost and translated into reduced energy costs for the home.

Selection process

As is the practice under the Habitat for Humanity Aboriginal Housing Program, the partner Aboriginal organization, Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes, recommended the family. Preference under the program is for a family with children. Other criteria include that the family:

  • generally is not on social assistance, particularly not as the sole income source;
  • currently lives in housing that is either too expensive, too small, unsafe or substandard;
  • is willing to volunteer 500 hours with Habitat;
  • is willing to commit to a long-term, interest-free mortgage; and
  • has an annual household income that is below the low income cut-off (LICO) for the specific community but sufficient to carry a mortgage and manage a home and family.

The selected family

The selected family had previously been tenants in a house owned by Can-Am and was ready to buy its own home. The family was enthusiastic about the house being environmentally friendly and targeting the ENERGY STAR® rating. The couple had been living in the region for several years and had two children.


For funding, the Windsor-Essex Habitat affiliate receives donations and engages in fundraising as well as running a ReStore, in which it sells donated new and used building supplies, furniture, housewares and garden items at discounted prices. As with all Habitat affiliates, all mortgage repayments are reinvested in building more Habitat homes. CMHC provided $10,000 in Seed Funding to support the early planning stages of the project, as well as a $10,000 donation from funds raised through staff charitable activities.

The Can-Am home was appraised at $135,000. The relatively low value compared to other metropolitan areas reflects house (and thereby land) prices, which have been depressed in recent years as a result of job losses due to automobile plant closures.

In accordance with standard Habitat arrangements, the family has an interest-free mortgage with no down payment. The monthly payments are fixed so as not to exceed 25 per cent of family income. The first mortgage reflects the actual cost of the house. The second mortgage, which is forgivable, reflects the difference between the cost and the fair market value. It decreases gradually with time, beginning typically at the 12-year mark. Habitat has the right to purchase the property if the family wants to sell.

The children in the basement holding up a T-shirt that sums it all up
Source: Habitat for Humanity Windsor-Essex

Suitability for replication

Factors favourable to replication are as follows:

  • The volunteer model used by Habitat for Humanity has proven its merits across the world. In Canada, it has been shown to work in all types of communities, in both rural and urban areas, in the North, as well as on-reserve. Since its founding in 1985, Habitat for Humanity Canada has logged more than 10 million volunteer hours, contributing to the successful completion of over 2,000 homes for low-income Canadian families. There are now over 70 affiliates in all provinces and territories.
  • Habitat for Humanity has also worked with organizations to create and renovate special-purpose housing and housing for people with special needs. In North America, this has included housing for seniors, persons with physical disabilities and those with mental health problems.
  • Habitat for Humanity’s success demonstrates that people and organizations are willing to donate labour, materials and funds to help create affordable housing.
  • While Habitat for Humanity is the largest and most well-known organization harnessing volunteer labour for the creation of affordable homes, other organizations including community groups have achieved results too (see The Cornerstone Project case study and CMHC’s Project Profile:  The Working Centre).
  • The use of voluntary labour requires careful organization and management to ensure the safety of the volunteer workers and make sure that their contributions are effective.
  • Liability considerations mean that there must be adequate insurance for volunteers.

Related strategy

Sources of further information

  1. For additional information regarding the Habitat for Humanity – Can-Am Urban Native Homes project, see the CMHC Project Profile at
  2. For additional information regarding Can-Am Urban Native Non-Profit Homes, see
  3. For more information regarding the Habitat for Humanity’s Aboriginal Housing Program, see
  4. For additional information regarding Habitat for Humanity’s partnership with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), see
  5. For a newspaper article on the project, see “Family gets home for the holidays,” from The Windsor Star, December 11, 2009, at
  6. For additional information regarding ENERGY STAR® for new homes, see

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