As a result of colonial institutions and destruction of land rights, Indigenous homelessness continues to punctuate discussions of decolonization and reconciliation
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“We wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.”
From the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s Annual General Meeting to special guest speaker events, the Statement of Acknowledgement of Traditional Land has become crystallized into words that are frequently used to open functions on campus. Perhaps, it was last year’s release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that sparked a marked rise in our acknowledgment of how the places we call home are the original homes of Indigenous peoples: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Inuit. After over a 100 years of residential schools and the intergenerational degradation of the Indigenous sense of home, it is timely that we — the settler Canadian majority — make a change to our cultural ethos; that we enable ‘re-Indegenization’; and that we assess what home must mean to those who were here long before us.
To understand the Indigenous sense of home, we must first conceptualize its negation: homelessness. However, the popular understanding of homelessness as the absence of physical shelter is Western-centric and limited in the Indigenous context. Indeed, a more intersectional and nuanced definition is needed.
Jesse Thistle, a Trudeau Scholar of Métis-Cree identity who was formerly homeless and addicted to drugs, leads the development of a definition of Indigenous homelessness that is set to be finalized by 2017 on behalf of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Rather than homelessness in terms of physicality, property, or possessions, which aligns with the government’s definition, this new definition consults Indigenous worldviews and methodology by centring on ‘all my relations.’
Indigenous homelessness is “fully described and understood through Indigenous worldviews as individuals, families, and communities isolated from their relationship to land, family, kin, each other, place, cultures, languages, and identities, and who do not possess or have the ability to culturally, spiritually, emotionally, and/or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships.” The work further identified 10 typologies that describe the nuanced experiences of Indigenous peoples and the loss of their relationships.
This revolutionary conception of homelessness based on Indigeneity can help contextualize the history of colonization and its impacts on Indigenous peoples and their sense of home. This work is useful for settler Canadians seeking to address their own complicity in the disturbance of that home.
Home is complex, layered, and multidimensional in the Indigenous experience. Consider the individual story of Darlene Necan: after three years of using donated materials, Necan finally completed the building of her home this year in the unorganized township of Savant Lake in Northern Ontario on grounds which were significant to her childhood. However, this individual story of accomplishment includes incredible struggle that speaks to the broader issue of Indigenous homelessness.
Twenty kilometers south of Savant Lake is Necan’s reserve, belonging to the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen. Due to a shortage in housing, she was unable to find adequate shelter on-reserve. Furthermore, Necan claims that her own Indigenous government and Chief lacks the willingness and accountability to help off-reserve members like her. Comparatively, off-reserve housing is not much better. In the nearest city of Thunder Bay, she complains of high rents and a “vicious cycle of welfare” that renders impoverished Indigenous peoples “paralyzed in the Ontarian provincial system.”
With hostility from both the reserve government and the provincial government, she opts for her own housing at a place known to her past: Savant Lake. Even on Savant Lake, however, she met legal challenges from the government, which claimed that the Public Lands Act forbade her from building a home there. Eventually, this threat was dropped. Thus, in 2016, she was able to complete and move into her home and reconnect with her Anishinaabe, familial roots.
Both urban living and reserve living highlight the intersections of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism that uniquely hurt and displace Indigenous women. Necan considers urban living to be a source of “desperation.” She has considered selling drugs to make enough money in order to survive. On-reserve, she and other women have been attempting to reclaim ownership of the land. In both urban and on-reserve cases, Indigenous women fight the hardest for homes in societies that actively marginalize them.
In a historical context, the primary example of disenfranchisement and Indigenous homelessness is residential schools. This colonial assault not only physically separated children from their communities into abusive conditions but also enacted cultural genocide. Those who survived and returned to their communities were given housing, but nonetheless remained ‘homeless’ in their inability to practice their culture, speak their language, enact traditional economic methods, or connect with their families. Likewise, the is ‘Sixties Scoop’ re-enacted the displacement of Indigenous children into the child welfare system, and further degraded any sense of stable, traditional, Indigenous home.
The colonial targeting of Indigenous children has left a profound impact in terms of intergenerational trauma, such as family violence and drug addiction; it has exacerbated systemic gaps in terms of employment, education, and health that undermine Indigenous communities and homes.
The alarming rate at which Indigenous women experience violence — especially given the high numbers of missing and murdered women today — has devastated Indigenous communities, given the centrality of mothers and girls in such societies. This historical culmination of separation, isolation, and trauma have often manifested in extreme forms of hopelessness, such as the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat earlier this year. Clearly, the deprivation of relationships and culture continue to contribute to Indigenous homelessness.
The damage to Indigenous homes does not stem merely from historical forms of trauma but also from direct aggression upon homes that are sanctioned by government and industry. For hundreds of years, ‘nation-building’ and ‘economic development’ have rationalized colonization and unwarranted encroachment on Indigenous land. This continues today. For example, the proposed chromite mining in Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire risks water poisoning and disables Indigenous peoples from exercising their right to fish on their traditional lands.
Necan’s cousin, Neecha, urges that future Indigenous generations should still have access to their land and inhabit it in their traditional ways; she also criticizes chief leaderships that permit corporate extractions of the land in the name of development.
Perhaps the most urgent threat to Indigenous homes is the continued pursuit of pipelines to transport oil and natural gas. The inherent risk of ruptured pipelines disproportionately concerns Indigenous communities and their attachment to local ecosystems and the environment. Furthermore, a continued reliance on a fossil fuel economy contributes to severe climate change, which deeper undermines the Indigenous connection to environment and, at its worst, causes natural disasters that create ‘emergency crisis homelessness.’
Indigenous struggles for home concerns the city life too. With up to 37,000 Indigenous Torontonians, who are eight times more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to endure physical homelessness, the latter have a responsibility to bridge the gap between their isolated urban consciousness and urban Indigenous issues.
To this end, the Indigenize or Die workshop series informs the City of Toronto’s Park and Public Realm Plan — a plan that intends to enrich public spaces. The inclusion of an Indigenous lens aims to recreate urban space in such a way that respects traditional usage of the land — for ceremonies and gatherings around fires, as an example — and include Indigenous voices in urban planning.
With regard to such momentum for urban re-Indigenization, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett acknowledges the invisibility of Indigenous Torontonians. She concedes that there must be more ‘on-the-land’ space for further exposure. For example, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto and the First Nations House at the University of Toronto serve as prime educational hubs for settler Canadians. Street signs near campus are also examples of reclaimed Indigeneity: for example, the Anishnaabe name ‘Isphadinaa’ for ‘Spadina.’ It is crucial that we cede the urban space, in which public consciousness is most impressionable, to Indigenous heritages and the knowledge that we are settlers on their home lands.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission demands that Canadians address the dark history of residential schools and the impact of intergenerational trauma on Indigenous homes. Of course, our apologies are insufficient; there must be action. The systemic gaps in education, employment, and health are stark; they illustrate the greater problem of Indigenous homelessness by which Indigenous peoples are deprived not only of physical shelter but also of their connection to land, culture, and spirituality.
Bennett also affirms that beyond just economic resources as the basis for successful Indigenous self-determination, there must be “secure, personal cultural identity.” In other words, only a reconnection to language and culture can empower an Indigenous sense of confidence and home.
However, cultural vibrancy cannot exist when we Canadians continue to commit aggression, settlement, and displacement without the consent of Indigenous peoples. As we extract resources, pursue economic development, and contribute to climate change, we continue colonization and sanction Indigenous homelessness.
It is our responsibility, then, to act upon the knowledge that we are fundamentally settlers on lands that do not belong to us. The struggles, leaderships, and triumphs of Thistle and Necan accentuate the issue of Indigenous homelessness and our complicity in its continued existence today.
Ultimately, home is more than just housing: it is about preserving our core selves and relationships. If we are to reconcile our relationship with Indigenous peoples, we must enable the self-determination of their most valued relationships — with communities, cultures, spirit, and land.