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June 26, 2014

Homeless Aboriginals

Reuel S. Amdur

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Aboriginal homelessness is complex. There is not a single cause and not a single Aboriginal experience, according to Caryl Patrick, a researcher with the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, publishers of her recent book Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada. Patrick spoke at Ottawa's Octopus Books on Bank Street on April 24.

She defined homelessness more broadly than just people on the street or in shelters, though her statistics appear to be more limited in application.  She would include people who couch-surf or who live in other temporary precarious accommodations, as well as people incarcerated.  Then there are those at risk of homelessness because of severe overcrowding and insalubrious conditions such as poor plumbing or other serious structural deficiencies.  Then there is spiritual homelessness, spiritual dispossession because of feeling of not belonging where one is.

Aboriginals, she holds, face a homelessness crisis related to poverty and the cuts that government has imposed on social programs.  Currently, there is an affordable housing crisis for everyone, but Aboriginal Canadians are harder hit.  Part of the reason is historical.

This history is one of trauma:  the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, during which children were taken from their families and adopted by white families.  This genocide has left its mark.  As Karl Marx put it, “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”  The sociologist Daniel Moynihan argued that the current weakness of the black family in the United States has its roots in the experience of slavery.

Aboriginals face racism and discrimination if they try to gain access to the general housing market.  They fail to qualify for mortgages if they have no credit history.  On reserve, they are constrained by the fact of reserve land ownership.  As well, many reserves lack economic opportunities, and in cities there is often resistance to Aboriginals moving in.  Many landlords discriminate.

Figures from 2012 and 2013 were found in her research to show that Aboriginals, 4.3% of Canada’s population, make up in various cities between 11% and 97% of the homeless population.  In urban areas, Aboriginals were eight times as likely to be homeless as the general population, one out of 15 compared to one out of 128.

There is, she charged, a policy vacuum, with no one responsible for urban Aboriginals.  Policy is patchy, lacking in vision and in coordination.  She calls on action to address this state of affairs, with participation by Aboriginal organizations and Aboriginal governments.  Programs arising from such an effort need to be culturally appropriate, as should mainstream services delivered to Aboriginals.

Patrick gave an example of what should be done, when the Fort Albany First Nation took the initiative.  It initiated a youth apprenticeship program which participated in a reserve housing construction program.  Conditions were thus improved, young people became educated, and the economy on the reserve improved.  While the endeavor depended in part on provincial money, it was a First Nation initiative.

She addressed the special barriers faced by Aboriginal women.  Disproportionately living in poverty, they are more likely to be homeless.  They are victims of what Al Capp called a triple whammy—discrimination on the bases of race, sex, and poverty.  Their burdens go back to the Indian Act of 1876.  Marriage to a white person would cause loss of status.  Till 1951, they were unable to take part in band elections.  Efforts to create shelters in urban areas have brought them face-to-face with prejudice, discrimination, and nimbyism—not in my back yard.

Joining the discussion was Shelly Longboat, a Mohawk woman who is an outreach worker for Miniwaashin Lodge, an Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre.  She herself has suffered homelessness.  Her role as an outreach worker involves doing such things as accompanying women on legal and health requirements.  She visits women in jail.

Longboat joined Patrick in identifying the Indian Act as a causative factor.  Women lacked education because if they left the reserve to seek an education they lost their status.

One way in which she helps women to gain self-esteem and pride in their identity is to teach them traditional ways, such as drumming, dancing, and making dream catchers.

In contrast to the Sixties Scoop, she had praise for the Ottawa Children’s Aid Society.  While some Aboriginal children in crisis need to be placed with non-Aboriginal homes due to the shortage of Aboriginal foster homes, the CAS cooperates with Aboriginal organizations in helping to teach these children about Aboriginal culture.

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