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Telling stories

“Don’t tell stories.” How many times did my mother say those words to me? What she meant was “Tell the truth.” My mother had no time for fantasy or tolerance for lies. Life was black and white for Phyllis Snobelen. She was too busy and practical to wade through the complications of nuance.

There were hard truths in our family that were determined by our religious beliefs that provided her solid ground from which she could pronounce what was right and what was wrong.

Right here I’m stuck. Where do I go with this? Many of you are probably saying, “But if you were Christian isn’t your entire religion based on stories?”

Exactly. And the Bible provides some of the most popular stories in the western world. Stories from which my mother extracted her black and white, but that’s for another discussion at another time time. And then there’s Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Not to diminish the importance of the stories I was raised with but we’ve come a long way since the late 50s and 60s when I was a child. Stories are not the opposite of truth. Stories are not “just” stories. They are the way humans have communicated with each other since we had language.

I’m thankful my mother lived long enough to hear me tell stories and to read some of the stories I had written. While she liked them she could never truly understand the point of it. From her perspective if a story wasn’t God’s story then it was of hugely diminished importance.

But when dementia began blurring the hard lines she had drawn in her life I spent hours with my mother telling her stories. Simple stories about buying a pair of boots or visiting an old friend kept her entertained. She told me stories that were a collage of her childhood and my childhood mixed with, perhaps, utter fantasy. She kept me entertained.

As her dementia progressed she struggled to remember even her closest friends. When a very dear family acquaintance died she had no recollection of him at all. It wasn’t until I recreated into a story something she had experienced dozens of times that she connected.

“Remember at the church on Sunday nights, Mom,” I said. “George (name change) the door man, with his long, dour face, paced across the back of the hall. He watched the second hand of the clock tick until it reached the 12 at 7:30…precisely 7:30. Then he shut the doors and sat down ready for the meeting to begin. Remember wondering why he never smiled?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “But he had a lovely wife who had a beautiful big smile for everyone.”

Stories didn’t just entertain my mother, they helped her connect to me, to her life and to the world. Stories aren’t just stories, they communicate the essence of what it means to be human.

The art of making space

And then there’s the paint dress.

Winston Churchill said, “First we make our houses and then our houses make us.” He wasn’t talking about our private homes but it’s true. We have a reciprocal relationship with where we live. We start by painting the rooms to match our furniture, or the other way around. We set up our photos and hang our art. We nestle in our favourite corner of the sofa and arrange the bookshelf (or TV remote) so it’s an arm’s distance away. Nothing feels better than breathing in the scent of our favourite meal and listening to the sounds of our personal lives…music, children’s voices, video games, conversation…

Whether our house is a mansion, an apartment or a tiny room…we begin making our space at the same time our space begins making us. Our home is where we feel safe (or not). It is where we learn, love and rejuvenate ourselves. It is where we laugh and cry, where we experience our greatest joy and where we suffer our most heart wrenching struggles. It is where we become who we are.

Our home is an expression of ourselves. It is, in a way, our primary art form. It is creative, not just in its decoration but in its function…in how it relates to us and us to it. We are both becoming.

Preparing the Lodge for guests made me think about the relationship between the visitors and the space and what role we play, as innkeepers, in that interaction.

I was laughing with a woman from Vancouver who was staying for a few days. “I have become a maid,” I said. “It’s a long way from the heady work I used to do…changing the world.”

“But it’s important,” she said. “Creating a sanctuary where people can spend a few days in peace, where they can feel valued and respected, where they can learn something and share something. Or where they can disappear in the garden or in their room, whatever they need at the time.”

And, as my son, Adam, said the last time he was here. “The Lodge is good medicine.”

Preparing that medicine has become our art form. We are making the space while at the same time the space is making us and it is helping to make the people who come to find peace of mind, serenity of spirit and simple enjoyment.

This is as high as I’ll go. Thankfully an Island painter is coming to do the top floor.

A new relationship

The last glorious bouquet of hydrangeas from the garden

Six months ago Tex and I had the privilege to become the owners of the Saturna Lodge. It is a grand old house that’s foundations were built in the 1920s but has had several total facelifts and reincarnations since. It is on Saturna Island perched on the hill at the toe of Boot Cove looking down the inlet to Navy Channel.

While we had shares in the Lodge earlier it wasn’t until February this year that our relationship truly got off the ground—the Lodge and us. Madison, my 19-year-old granddaughter, best describes our initial feelings. On her first visit she walked in and circled around. She nodded her head while checking it out.

“Wow, Grandma,” she said. “This is a thing. And it’s a lot.”

Once we got over the muchness of our purchase we began looking for words to describe our connection—steward, custodian, caretaker. The Lodge required us to rethink the idea of ownership. In many ways we felt that we had formed a partnership with the building and property—that the Lodge, itself, was the third party to a new liaison.

Like in any new relationship we needed to listen and learn who the Lodge was and how she functioned (she is definitely and graciously a she). We got to know how quietly she weathers gale force winds, how the sun sidles down the cove and finds her late in the morning, how she presides over the garden as if she is grounded in beauty. And overwhelmingly we came to know how much care she needed from us…the immediate repairs to the old deck, outdoor stairs, porches and siding…the protective painting …the energy saving remediations…

We found out that the Saturna community felt a sense of ownership of the Lodge. It was as if everyone we met had either worked there, stayed there, been married there, had dinner there, had great ideas for what could happen there, had wanted to buy it…but didn’t. We did. Now what?

We had ideas. The space seemed perfectly suited for small events—board meetings, training sessions, workshops, family gatherings… We thought that we might host a dozen or so such occasions a year. It was a manageable business plan and still is.

But many islanders told us that the Lodge needed to reopen for short-term guests. The island didn’t have enough accommodations.

The Lodge herself seemed to agree. She wasn’t built to be a private dwelling. She was designed for short term lodgers…a bed and breakfast. Lovely rooms, comfortable shared indoor and covered outdoor space and gardens to live in.

Tex, is the quintessential innkeeper, the congenial host, the world travelled, genteel hotelier who loves to meet and greet people so it was easy for him to agree.

At first I didn’t want to think about operating a B&B; cleaning, changing beds, cleaning, making breakfast, cleaning… And besides that the Lodge wasn’t prepared. There was too much to do to get her guest-ready. She needed work.

But we agreed, perhaps all of us together, that we should open the door and slowly let people in. In April Tex said yes when a woman called. She was working on the island and needed a room for two nights.

She was from Surrey. She had two teenagers at the madness stage. She hadn’t been feeling well lately. She wasn’t sure about her husband anymore but his folks lived downstairs and that was the only way they could afford their house. The whole thing made her tired.

After she dragged her bags into her room she took her cans of cider out to the hot tub that is nestled in the trees overlooking the garden. A few hours later I got worried. Are we supposed to make sure our guests are okay? The mother in me said, go find her. It was dark and cold. She was blissfully listening to music oblivious to the hours that had passed.

“Thank you so much for letting me stay here,” she said. “I feel calm, serene, peaceful. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. This place has a special tranquility about it. I really needed it.”

A psychiatrist who stayed a few weeks ago said the same thing, “If there is one thing people need these days it’s serenity. And that’s what you have here. This place is a gift.”

The sun is half way down the hill on the other side of the Cove. It’s time to put breakfast on the bar. We are painting the exterior and as Maddy said, “It’s a lot.”

There are beautiful twin boys and their parents staying in the family room downstairs. They will be up soon looking for something to eat. People say this is our fourth quarter, Tex and I. Perhaps. I hope it’s not our final inning. But I think it might be our last big play and if it is, it’s sure a hell of a gig. One thing is for sure…the Lodge is getting ready for whatever is coming her way.

Easter Sunday memory

Fifty-two years ago, on Easter Weekend, I witnessed something that would change my life. I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t understand what I saw but I knew it wasn’t what it appeared.

It was my first time attending the Totem soccer tournament in Victoria. It was Johnny Rice’s (Songhees), tournament. A few years earlier he had single-handedly put it together with no sponsorship and no funding, something I would marvel at for years to come. In those days it was just a men’s tournament with 15 or 20 teams mostly from the west coast and lower mainland—Sliammon, Chehalis, Campbell River, Musqueum, Duncan, Nanaimo… I can remember players from each team—sleek and handsome.

I was 15 years old and there to watch the Saanich Braves, my boyfriend and soon to be husband’s team. While I loved to watch the games, it was the tournament itself that fascinated me.

I stood alone. Always alone. I was learning that I was white, something a white girl, in those days, had no way of knowing. The Totem tournament was Indian. I felt self-conscious and sometimes afraid but after awhile I found a space as an observer where I was somewhat comfortable.

So there I was at Hampton Park. A muddle of players and fans were milling around. A game had just finished and the Saanich Braves supporters were swarming the sidelines, setting up their lawn chairs and blankets ready for their match to start.

Onto the field strode what looked to be a Catholic priest (perhaps a Brother, I wouldn’t have known the difference). He was alone, garbed in a full-length black robe and a white priestly collar. I’m pretty sure he wore a large cross hanging from a long necklace.

He joined a small huddle of players who were still celebrating their win. I thought it curious that he would be so confident.

As if in slow-motion one of the players pulled his arm back. I watched him wind up. I kept my eye on the profile of the black robed man. While he was smiling, as if to congratulate the team, the fist nailed him right in the nose. As if I was watching a cartoon I saw him fly backwards, arms flailing, feet up, robes catching the wind like sails, the cross on the necklace whirling through the air.

I had never heard such a thing let alone watched its every movement. The crunch of what was probably a broken nose, together with blood bursting like fireworks, should have shocked and appalled me. But I was in my observer place, wishing hard that I wasn’t the only other white person in the park. At the same time I was thinking there is more to this—a backstory I need to know if I am to understand this gory event.

The player and his teammates turned their backs and walked away as if nothing had happened. No one from the sidelines rushed to help the injured man. He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, held his nose while rearranging his robe and stumbled to the sideline where he found a bench and sat down.

Every Easter Sunday afterwards I wondered what had happened that day and why.

In 1991 when Diane Harris and I interviewed former students of Kuper Island residential school we met an old soccer player. He asked us into his house and we sat in his living room amongst beautiful pieces of his art that were pinned to the wall. He said he was tired of being silent—that it was time to share his stories from Kuper. He told us about the time he attempted to escape with his brother, only to be sent back and the time he got a bunch of students together to report the abusers at the school, only to be silenced by the arch bishop. He described his confusion when he returned home, his alcoholism and other forms of self-abuse.

Then he told us about the only time he had the chance to truly express how he felt about the Kuper Island school. It was at an Easter soccer tournament. He said he was outraged by the nerve of the brother from the school who had come right onto the soccer field to congratulate him for the win. He told us how good it felt to punch him in the face.

Casting my memory back to witnessing exactly that instant now it all made sense. It was just a moment and 20 years later an explanation. I never could have imagined such a story. But it was a fundamental event in my life and in my learning what it means to be white. It may sound random on this Easter Sunday and I don’t want to be preachy or teachy but things are not usually what they first appear and through long and complicated life experiences I’ve come to know that being white is a deeply complex thing to be.

I don’t apologize for my colour—I did that for years and it did no good.

Diane told me not to stay on the sidelines. She said it was my job to talk about what I saw…so I have and I do. I share this strange memory only to give us a moment of pause to contemplate the tiny space we inhabit and to encourage us all to keep looking for the explanations of things we don’t quite understand.

MAKING CHANGE

I was anxious when I opened the package and looked at the book for the first time. I have never written a textbook before. I’ve written curriculum for years but writing a textbook gave me an especially worrisome case of “who do you think you?” It wasn’t a unique feeling; I get it every time I publish a book.

Every book feels like a good idea when I start out. Then I bury myself in writing and don’t create the space to think about whether I should have started it in the first place. But it’s always the same; when I open the package my stomach ties itself in a knot and I get lost in a flurry of self-doubt and an assault of “is it perfect?” sorts of questions.

It turns out each one has a glitch…something I wish were different. This one doesn’t have anything on the spine. How did that happen? The first book I wrote had a disconcertingly orange cover and I couldn’t make peace with it. We redid it for the second printing so I’ve put that behind me, but there is always something.

My new-book anxiety prevents me from reading my books for a few weeks; wonder if I find a huge mistake?

But Making Change contains many voices other than mine. It is a result of teaching for a dozen years or so and even my voice is mostly what I’ve learned from the students’ assignments and discussions. The other contributors to the book are Hwiem’, Marlene Rice, a Cowichan elder, Qwuy’um’aat, Eyvette Elliott, a brilliant young Cowichan woman, Frank French, from the Chippewas of the Thames and Simuletse, Stuart Pagaduan, the Cowichan artist who did the illustrations and who summed up the content on the back cover. So while Making Change is mine, because I put it together, it’s not only mine. In one way that makes it even more worrisome because I want the book to honour the amazing contributors and I want them all to love it.

My anxieties aside, the multiple voices and perspectives make it a textbook with a difference. It sheds a light on the complexities of managing housing on reserves. It dignifies the hundreds of housing managers across the country who are working within a colonial system that was not designed to be successful yet who are still finding ways to make profound change. The rich contributions invite you inside the struggle so you can share in the solutions—a place most people never visit. You could skip the bulleted lists of how to manage meetings or communicate with tenants and just look at Marlene, Eyvette and Frank’s grey boxes. They are worth the read.

If you aren’t someone who reads management textbooks and who is unlikely to purchase Making Change from Vancouver Island University let me share with you the back cover, by Simuletse, Stuart Pagaduan, which sums it up beautifully.

Our houses are not just physical places that keep us warm. Our people have always had a spiritual connection to our homes. The beautiful cedar beams are seen as living beings, not just something to make a roof.

In modern times the housing conditions we have experienced have been part of the great displacement of our people—fragmenting how we live—the way we practice our culture, the way we prepare our food, the way we live together as families—the conditions have been a total game changer and we are still reeling from the effects. Housing causes us conflict in ways we don’t always even understand.

Housing managers have been forced to work in a system with unequal opportunities, a lack of adequate funding and often not even enough support from their own Chiefs and Councils. It seems like no one wants to really address the problem it is so daunting.

But there are some really good people stepping up and making the change that needs to happen—housing managers across the country who are not willing to settle for less with low expectations. They are adopting new ways of thinking that are uplifting our spirits. They are making the change needed so we can pass on new and positive feelings and thoughts about housing to our children.”

Old sheets

Flannel sheets turned bedside rugs

I call it recycling in place. It’s what happened when we bought the Saturna Lodge and I did an inventory of the bedding…shelves of mismatched, very old, very used sheets and pillowcases. Once I had extracted the usables I bundled up the rest—five pillow cases full of bedding, some likely dating back 30 or 40 years.

I paused before I loaded my stash into the van and Googled. I found out that the average Canadian throws away 37 kilograms of textiles and together we landfill 10 million tonnes of clothing a year and that textile dyeing and treatment contributes up to 20% of the total industrial water pollution. The fashion industry is the worst offender, and I couldn’t find facts about the bedding industry, but I felt a bit sick thinking about sending my bundles to the dump or even to a second hand–there is just too much of this stuff.

These weren’t linens or even cottons. There were some 100% cotton pieces but most of them were a cotton/polyester blend. These were also not cool designer colours. There were some interesting greys and greens but there were very few that I would have bought if I had the choice.

I didn’t feel like making any more braided rugs. I’d just finished two and they were brutally hard to sew together. Knitting was my obvious solution. Turn the fabric into knittable yarn.

I tore every piece into strips. The strange filaments from the polyester—like candy floss—stuck to everything (if you try it make sure you wear a mask).

At first the blankets I made were like a public service—doing my duty to recycle. Soon they became my works or art. Then the blankets turned into interesting and useful foot throws for the beds. It was satisfying keeping the circle so small—the sheets cycling around so directly back onto the beds from which they had come.

There was one random flannel sheet that I thought would make a good rug. At the second hand stores in Sidney I found other flannel sheets to augment the one I had. The Lodge’s downstairs rooms needed bedside rugs. Now my conscience-appeasing recycling venture got practical. This wasn’t just a duty I was now filling a need.

It’s muscular knitting at its worst. Old bed sheets do not make comfortable yarn. There’s no give. There’s no slide on the needles. It’s hard work. My hands ache after an hour or so but there’s comfort in the act of turning rubbish into something useable, turning the mundane into something interesting and turning the unattractive into something beautiful.

If you visit the Lodge make sure you check out the knitting and if you have any flannel sheets you aren’t using and if you are close to Victoria or Saturna I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them to good use.

A blanket in the process

Happy Birthday

I’m the little scruffy one

Sixty-seven years ago today, on a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon, I was born. My star sign is Pisces and on the Chinese Zodiac it is the year of the sheep or goat, perhaps the most auspicious sign of the future life of the baby me.

On this, my Happy Birthday, I am more thankful than happy. I am thankful for my life, that my parents had one more child before they called it quits. I am and have been an incredibly privileged person. Like everyone, I am still learning what privilege is and how deeply set it is in the structure of our society. But one of my most important privileges is that I was taught to be thankful and even with my family’s limited understanding of privilege I was constantly reminded that I should not take it for granted but that I should acknowledge everyday that there are people who are struggling in ways I can hardly imagine.

On this troubled day as I look back and forward over the life I was given and the one I have made and as I try to make sense of it there are some things that I know and can be sure of.

In spite of the overwhelming spitefulness and pessimism blanketing the planet I know that where there is life there is hope. There is spectacular beauty in the world. This is the time to seek it out and experience it.

In spite of the assault on clear thinking and the deliberate battering of legitimate information and knowledge by mindless chants such as “fake news”, I know many people will continue to seek the sensible. This is the time to lend my mind and voice to reason.

In spite of the current protests by people drawing attention to their personal inconveniences, I believe many people will remain focused on the real losses of freedom around the world and here at home. This is the time for me to continue to find practical ways to help those who have been colonized, brutalized and marginalized.

In spite of our recent diversions I believe we will remember Greta and that humans everywhere share a common foe that will dwarf our current conflicts. This is the time to support the intelligent work being done in the field of climate adaptation and the thinking that goes beyond our self-centred human concerns and includes all natural beings.

In spite of the arguments I engage in about the anatomy of the myriad current and pending disasters I will remember that I am a grandmother and that the role of grandmothers has always been the same…to provide safety, certainty and constancy for her grandchildren…to bring joy and peace into their lives…and, most importantly, to love.

That’s enough for one getting-old woman. This is the time for me to work on providing a peaceful space for friends and family and visitors…a space not fraught with the petty or the politics of conflict…a calm place where people can soothe their spirits and heal their hurts. I figure that’s enough for year 67.

Refocus

Just when I thought we were making some headway challenging the male dominated, racist, colonial structures in western society the voices of Idle No More, Me Too and Black Lives Matter have been muted and replaced with the raging anti-everythings led by guess who? White males. Now why isn’t that surprising? If these boys don’t like our society where were they when the people who have deep historical and systemic grievances were trying to make change? Or are they forcing us to make it all about them again?

Oh I know there are women and people of colour joining the protests. But we all know the old strategy—light a fire somewhere else to take the heat off the real problems. COVID gave the angry and the fed up—mostly male and mostly white—focus. It gave them their very own issue so they could become the victims. It was a great strategy to take the heat off the bombardment they had been experiencing from women, black and indigenous people. Why I think the current movement is mostly male and mostly white is because women, black and indigenous people have something to compare the latest “oppression” to that won’t go away once the virus recedes.

The oppression caused by COVID rules is incidental, the other oppression is systemic—that’s not a trivial difference. Vaccine passports and exclusionary policies have cramped our style for a few months and the masses are screaming. The movements I’ve mentioned are trying to lift oppression that has squelched people’s freedoms and stolen their dignity for centuries.

I’m pretty sure there are dozens of ways to argue with this post. But I am frustrated and impatient with the current screaming masses—they don’t deserve to take the focus off the movements that have worked so hard to get a voice.

Born with the knitting gene

Joni’s knitted interpretation of Coast Salish weaving

The day Joni, my oldest daughter, was born 43 years ago, I was spinning wool so I had something to knit when I came home from the hospital. I birthed her with the help of a Caesarean Section. She was a perfect, beautiful little baby. Almost immediately people commented on her dimple. Perhaps a knitting needle poked her, people joked. For nine months she had been the shelf for my knitting.

Joni was born with the knitting gene. No one taught her. From the time she was a little girl she knew exactly what to do with needles and yarn. Joni inherited the gene from both sides of her family. Her Coast Salish Grandmother, Laura Olsen, also knit every day of her life until she could no longer lift her needles.

Joni is not just a knitter, she is a designer as well. She isn’t satisfied just knitting what everyone else is making. She is interested in pushing knitting in new directions donning her needles for a machine and then pushing the machine to its limits.

One of Joni’s most interesting creations was highlighted in the Qw’an Qw’anakwal Exhibition of Coast Salish Art at the University of Victoria in 2021. During a visit to the Chicago Field Museum in 2012 Joni viewed an early Coast Salish woven tunic. The piece inspired her to design a knitting stitch that reproduces classic Coast Salish weaving and to create her own fascinating rendition of the garment in the museum.

Joni’s tunic is a demonstration of fusion—using new tools and materials to reproduce old shapes and textures.

Stay tuned. There is more to come.

Joni’s latest design is the new home for Salish Fusion. The shop is currently being constructed and with luck and hard work should be open in time for Christmas.

First Nations housing and child welfare

A tribute to the Olsen family’s knitting vocation and a wonderful reminder of love and creativity every time we enter our house
by Chris Paul

In a landmark settlement the federal government designated “$20 billion over five years to improve services in Indigenous communities so children will no longer be removed from their homes.” (National Post) Another $20 billion is earmarked for compensation for people who suffered from past inadequate services.

Indigenous Relations Minister Patty Hajdu said, “Poverty cannot be a reason that a child cannot stay with their family.”

Years of good work by Cindy Blackstock and her team resulted in a well deserved and much needed victory. But what is missing in the narrative is the role housing has played on reserves. Improving services so children will no longer be removed from their homes presumes that the children have adequate homes. It presumes that the children’s parents have the same opportunities as other people to acquire housing. But that has not been the case for almost a century. The federally designed and delivered housing system in Canada, has prevented First Nations people on reserves from housing themselves.

Furthermore it is not necessarily poverty that prevents children from staying with their family. Even families with adequate incomes have been and, in many cases, still are prohibited from access to the financing needed to build or repair their homes. It is the absence of opportunity that prevents children from having adequate homes. It’s time to turn the narrative around. While poverty, on reserves, produces substandard housing, it must also be said that the disastrous effects of government designed and controlled housing actively created the poverty in the first place.

The problem can best be illustrated by telling a story I read in the national archives when I examined the Indian Department records while doing research into the history of government control over housing on reserves. In order to protect peoples’ privacy the details of this story are a composite of several families’ housing struggle. The archival records expose a lot of personal information making it necessary to mask individual identities.

In 1959 Roland was a 36-year-old woodcutter in the Maritimes. He hauled logs out of his First Nations territory and chopped them into firewood. He had many customers in neighbouring villages. He made decent money but wood selling was a seasonal business so Roland augmented his income with fishing and odd jobs when he had time.

Roland lived in a 400 square foot cabin with his 32-year-old wife Annie and their nine children ranging in age from less than a year to 17. They heated the cabin with a metal wood heater and lighted it with kerosene lanterns and candles so it’s not surprising that winter the crowded little dwelling burned to the ground. Luckily none of the family was hurt but they were houseless.

Houselessness meant they needed to find relatives they could live with. The trouble was all their family members lived in similar conditions and no one had room for Roland’s children. You might think they could rent something in town but even if there was an available house that could shelter eleven people harsh racism targeting First Nations people prevented Roland and his family from even trying to find such a home.

Furthermore Roland didn’t qualify for a bank loan because the Indian Act prohibited Indians, living on reserves, from acquiring loans no matter how much money they made. In the Indian housing system there was only one place to go for assistance. So Roland began his letter writing campaign to the Indian Department pleading the case for his family. “We need material so I can rebuild our cabin.” “We have nowhere to live. Our families don’t have room for us.” “We are going to have to live in the bush this winter—all eleven of us.” “The baby is sick.”

The Indian agent sent a letter of recommendation to Ottawa saying, “Roland is a hard working fellow. He takes good care of his family. We need to help him but we are out of funds here. Please send emergency funds.”

Roland didn’t get any assistance that winter. He continued to desperately request help in the spring but by the following summer his letters ceased.

Even more troublesome was what showed up in subsequent files. Their poor housing conditions wreaked havoc on their health and within the year Annie and the oldest daughter were sent to the tuberculosis hospital. With no house and no one to care for the rest of his family the school age children were sent to residential school and the little ones were put into foster care.

 There was only one reason why this hard working, committed husband and father ended up losing his family to the medical, school and child welfare systems. It wasn’t poverty. It was because Canada had a racist housing system on reserves that prohibited First Nations people from accessing the necessary financial tools and building materials that were available to every other Canadians. It was because First Nations people living on reserves were restricted from opportunities to house themselves.

While changes have taken place over the past fifteen years or so the same system is still in place today and young families with small children are still commonly living in shared accommodations, often in one room of a grandparent’s house.

There are more First Nations children in care now than in the height of the residential school era. When the ministry takes children from young families they are often caught in a housing catch 22. One common condition for the children’s return is that the parents get adequate housing. Yet even if a First Nation has housing, young people usually do not qualify for it unless they have their children full time.

Additionally, when they try to find housing in mainstream the same racism Roland would have faced still excludes First Nations from the rental market. Rejection is an experience young First Nations families know all too well.      

“I want my son to feel okay to go out there in the world and to feel that he’s equal to everyone else but I know that’s not the case. He’s going to have trouble because of our skin colour. He’s been with me when I’ve been denied. He understands the struggle unfortunately.” (Shawntay Garcia, W̱JOȽEȽP –Tsartlip First Nation)

First Nations are working towards transferring the care and control of housing from government to their own organizations. Like in the child and family sector, their challenge is to avoid simply replacing what currently exists. They have the opportunity to build a system that eclipses both the First Nations and mainstream housing systems. That dream requires telling the real story and building a new vision. It also requires tremendous commitment and resources on the part of First Nations and government. One of the problems with housing is that the approach is fragmented. Organizations all over the country are taking control and what is still missing is a central voice that advocates for the whole sector and that holds the government’s feet to the fire both for current issues and past compensation.

But it can be done–Cindy Blackstock has proven it is possible. The same sort of focussed attention needs to be given housing because if is way past time for government to relinquish control of the on-reserve housing sector and to enable First Nations to regain the tools they need to house themselves.