"The marginalization and over-representation of Indigenous people in homelessness today is connected to the history of displacement, oppression and abuse experienced by generations of Indigenous people (which still occurs today)."
Ottawa is located on unceded Algonquin, Anishnabek territory. Put simply, these lands were stolen from the traditional keepers for the purposes of settlers. Dispossession of land is just one form of ongoing colonization that has led to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people disproportionately experiencing homelessness.
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, formerly known as Orange Shirt day, is this Friday, September 30th. It is a federal holiday declared last year in response to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
It is a time to reflect on our city and country’s colonial history, acknowledge current injustices perpetuated through systemic discrimination, embrace traditional indigenous knowledge and leadership, and take the steps required to bring to right what has been wrought upon the generations of indigenous people of this land.
We are grateful for the work of Indigenous scholar Jesse Thistle in defining homelessness as experienced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people. The 12 dimensions of Indigenous homlessness make clear the connection between historical and ongoing colonization and the over-representation of Indigenous people in homelessness. To ensure the prevention, reduction, and ultimate end of homelessness, we must support the call for a fully-funded Indigenous Housing Strategy with an Indigenous-led governance structure.
We must listen to the stories, and make space for the voices of indigenous leaders to light the way forward. We are grateful for the voices and leadership of Gail Gallagher and Rocky Spoon, Community Liaisons on the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa's Expert Steering Team.
Imagine yourself with no roof over your head, your last meal was 2 days ago and as the night approaches you realize you have nowhere to sleep. A sick, sinking feeling hits your stomach.
This happens daily to countless homeless Indigenous individuals in Ottawa, the Nation’s capital. According to a Statistics Canada report, Indigenous people remain much more likely to be living in inadequate housing than the non-Indigenous population. According to the City of Ottawa 2021 Point in Time Count, 2.5% of Ottawa’s population identifies as Indigenous, but 24% of people experiencing homelessness in Ottawa identify as Indigenous. The Indigenous population in Ottawa is over-represented in homelessness, and this trend is true for many other major cities across Canada.
There are real systemic barriers that lead to this over-representation. There are also social factors, as discrimination continues to be a major barrier to indigenous households finding and securing stable housing. That age-old stereotype of a *“drunken Indian” still enters people’s consciousness, or worse, it escapes their mouths.
My experience in Edmonton, Alberta, taught me to phone a landlord 5-20 minutes before an apartment viewing to confirm its availability. And yet each time, upon seeing by black hair, the landlord would inform me that, mysteriously, the unit had already been rented to someone else. Racism hurts. The repeated disappointment and rejection, despite my tenacity and resilience, was painful. It was keeping me from having a place to call home.
The issue of Indigenous homelessness has mattered to me deeply for many years, before and since then. It has affected me personally; as someone who has lived it, and with close family who have experienced homelessness, living on the streets or in encampments. Homelessness has many faces. In my case, I was forced to ‘couch surf’ for a few months, to escape domestic violence. This was my reality. One of few options.
I am grateful that my case was minor and short-lived. Other Indigenous individuals spend months or years on the streets, sleeping rough. Once a person becomes homeless, it is very hard to get off the street, especially with the compounded stigma and trauma of Indigenous experience. The experience living on the street often leads to substance use and increased mental health strain, making it even harder for someone to secure housing.
There is a long history of colonization in Canada that many want to ignore. It is easier to believe the stereotypes mentioned above than to acknowledge that these struggles are symptoms of deeply rooted, systemic racism. This historic and systemic racism endured by Indigenous peoples needs to be examined, and its link to homelessness understood. The root of the overt violence towards the Indigenous homeless population in Canada needs to be included in that examination. These negative stereotypes must be dismantled, through intentional learning, so that the truth can emerge and so that people can be safe and seen.
The marginalization and over-representation of Indigenous people in homelessness today is connected to the history of displacement, oppression and abuse experienced by generations of Indigenous people (which still occurs today). Every Indigenous person I know has experienced the impact of ‘Indian residential school’, or had a parent, grandparent or family member attend a day school. These experiences robbed people of their traditional knowledge and were a way to force assimilation onto the Indigenous people in Canada. Students experienced malnutrition, lack of love, and abuse. If they didn’t experience it, they were witness to it. Much of the familial dysfunction seen in Indigenous communities today are a result of the intergenerational trauma caused by these experiences. This is critical to understand when we see that Indigenous person standing on the street corner, with limited external or internal resources to manage their difficult situation.
However, on this day of reflection, I’d like to leave you with a new narrative to consider. While Indigenous peoples have faced and continue to face many barriers, we have also shown incredible resilience and strength, sustained through the generations. We continue to bring awareness to the issue of Indigenous homelessness, and to develop solutions from our deep traditional knowledge to address this issue. As activists, Indigenous people are reclaiming the spaces they were pushed from. We are reminding everyone that the homeless person you see is someone’s brother, or sister, parent, grandmother, grandfather, cousin or family member. Reader, think of this the next time you see a homeless person standing on the street.
Finally, a reminder to the Indigenous people without homes: you are loved and you matter.
Gail Gallagher (with support from Rocky Spoon)
*Note: "Indian" is a term that is now considered outdated and offensive, but has been used historically to identify Indigenous peoples in South, Central and North America. In Canada, “Indian” also has legal significance. It is used to refer to legally defined identities set out in the Indian Act, such as Indian Status. For some Indigenous peoples, the term “Indian” confirms their ancestry and protects their historic relationship to the Crown and federal government. For others, the definitions set out in the Indian Act are not affirmations of their identity but rather a reminder of their oppression and dispossession.
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.
For anyone impacted by the upcoming class action compensation process, The Hope and Wellness Helpline offers anonymous, free, counselling and crisis intervention 24 hours/day, 7 days/week at 1-855-242-3310. Find more resources and info here: https://hopeforwellness.ca/home.html
About Gail Gallagher: Gail is of Cree heritage, from Frog Lake First Nation, Alberta, and currently resides in the Nation’s capital. She is the daughter of a hunter-trapper and her late mother Flora was an Indian day school scholar. Gail completed her thesis on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and has a Master of Arts, Native Studies, from the University of Alberta.
About Rocky Spoon: Rocky is Anishinaabemowin from Seine River and he brings an energy of positivity to every interaction. He believes in working with others and learning together in order to make the system better for people experiencing homelessness. Besides his work on the Alliance's Expert Steering Team, Rocky has studied to be an addictions worker and also does street outreach, helping people who are experiencing homelessness on the streets of Ottawa.