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Canada needs an Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Salish Lelum youth and elder housing complex developed by the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

The federal riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith falls within the traditional territories of the Snaw-Naw-As, Snuneymuxw, Stz’uminus and Lyackson First Nations. These nations have small land bases. On-reserve housing is over-crowded and many community members are unable to live on-reserve. Successive federal governments have failed to provide funding to address the need for more on-reserve housing. The Nanaimo-Ladysmith area has a significant urban Indigenous population, which also includes Indigenous people from neighbouring Coast Salish territories, and from all over Turtle Island.

Like many other Canadian cities, Nanaimo has a large homeless population and a disproportionate number of the people who are homeless are also Indigenous. This is a reflection of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people.

The financialization of housing, and the predatory investment practices that go along with it, are harming many, many people, all over this country. And Indigenous people are, of course, being disproportionately harmed. Here’s an example. A single Real Estate Investment Trust controls 74% of the private multi-family rental units in Iqaluit and 85% in Yellowknife. This REIT prioritizes housing for government and resource workers, and is known to blacklist Indigenous renters. The rate of homelessness In Yellowknife is ten percent, and 90% of the people who are homeless are Indigenous.

Regulatory failures and policy failures of successive federal and provincial governments have brought us to where we are today - in the midst of a homelessness crisis and a housing affordability crisis.

Lack of adequate housing is one of the primary reasons that Indigenous children are apprehended by child welfare agencies. There are more Indigenous children in the child welfare system today than there were children in residential schools during the height of that system. The failure to protect Indigenous people’s human right to housing is a continuation of the same cultural genocide as the residential school system and the sixties scoop. The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that both urban Indigenous people and Indigenous people living in the reserve system have adequate housing.

In Nanaimo there are a couple of excellent examples of housing created for Indigenous people by Indigenous people.The first is Salish Lelum, an affordable youth and elder housing complex developed by the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Salish Lelum is designed in the style of a Longhouse and incorporates communal spaces where the youth and elders have the opportunity to come together, to learn from and support each other.

Another example is Nuutsumuut Lelum, a housing complex developed by the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre. It’s a beautiful cedar-sided townhouse complex that includes housing for families. The passive energy design of the complex keeps tenants heating costs very low. And like Salish Lelum, there are shared spaces for community members to gather.

These shared spaces connect children with elders and create opportunities for passing down cultural knowledge. They echo the traditional, multi-generational and extended family living spaces of many Indigenous cultures -- a type of housing that was eliminated when the reserve system imposed single-family housing on Indigenous communities.

The call to create and implement an inclusive and culturally appropriate Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy created for Indigenous peoples by Indigenous peoples needs to be honoured.

In 1997 I visited my sister Heather in Northern Ontario. My sister is Haisla, from Kitamaat, and at that time she was an Ontario Provincial Police officer based out of Sioux Lookout doing Indigenous policing in remote communities with the Northwest Patrol.

During my visit I told her about my visit to the Guatemala City dump during the filming of a documentary about human rights workers. This dump was where the death squads dumped the bodies of the people that they kidnapped, tortured and murdered. But the dump also had a community of people who lived there, surviving on whatever they could find. I described how I saw people scrambling up the piles as the garbage trucks unloaded, looking for food, for things to sell and for materials for the homes they built at the edge of the dump.

After I finished the story my sister asked me to take a drive with her. We went to the Sioux Lookout dump. It was minus 20 degrees outside. Beside the landfill was a series of shacks and in the landfill were a couple of Indigenous people going through the refuse trying to find anything of potential value including food, building materials and supplies for their shacks. It’s outrageous that in a country as wealthy as Canada there are people living like this. Twenty years later in 2017, 13 homeless Indigenous people froze to death in Sioux Lookout. And this year two homeless Indigenous people died in Nanaimo, one on the streets and one in the hospital. It’s completely unacceptable.

Canada can and must do better to ensure that there is adequate affordable housing for rural and urban Indigenous people living both on reserve and off reserve.

Housing is a basic human right and the federal government has recognized that right through the international agreements it has signed and has affirmed that right in the National Housing Strategy.

Decades after the federal government abandoned its responsibilities to provide funding for affordable housing this Liberal government has come back to the table. I want to acknowledge that and give credit where credit is due. But decades of neglect, coupled with poor regulation of the housing market, has created a housing crisis in Canada. That crisis needs to be addressed as the emergency that it is.

The Liberal government promised to create a fourth stream of funding through the National Housing Strategy for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples, that was focused on urban Indigenous people, who make up 87% of the Indigenous population. The budget that was just tabled failed to even mention urban Indigenous housing, let alone allocate any funding.

The federal government has tabled Bill C-15 the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. UNDRIP does not give Indigenous people rights, it affirms the inherent rights that they already have. Rights that have been affirmed in the British North America Act and the Constitution of 1982.

Indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programs affecting them and to administer these programs through their own institutions.

Culturally relevant housing is a human right for Indigenous people living in urban, rural and northern areas and it is incumbent upon governments to dedicate the necessary resources to housing created for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people.

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