The Other Housing

House belonging to Laura & Ernie Olsen

“Sylvia, we’re looking for someone to fix up our housing department here in Tsartlip. What do you think? Do you want the job?”

That was in 1995 or so. I was almost finished my Masters degree. I was doing First Nations management consulting around BC with Ron Martin, a Tlaoquiaht man, and friend. We were writing policies, reorganizing management systems, mediating cross-cultural disputes, writing position papers for treaties and doing other widely varied First Nations work. 

I said, “sure.” I thought, how hard can that be? 

But, when I moved to Tsartlip, I had found that out it was like moving to a foreign country. I was looking back at Canada from a dark place deep under its belly that few people could see. I got to see how “the government” managed everything in the world in which I lived. I found out that “fixing the housing department” would have little to do with me, little to do with Tsartlip and everything to do with the federal government. The Indian Department controlled everything, yet everything was completely out of control. 

Trying to manage housing on the reserve was like facing off with a heavyweight boxer when you are a featherweight blindfolded, with no gloves, no training, no rules. At first, like every other First Nations housing manager, I thought the housing fiasco was my fault…that I just needed to learn how to fix it. Then I thought it was Tsartlip’s fault…that the damn band office had messed up again and again. Then I realized I was working in a field that suffered from systems failure. The problems were much bigger than me and bigger than Tsartlip. I was trying to fix a system that had been failing for generations…a system that had never been designed to succeed.

Since the mid 1990s I have worked in on-reserve housing policy at home and across the country. I have been the construction manager for 39 homes in Tsartlip and the project manager for more than 50 mould rebuilds or renos. I’ve been (and still am) on several national and provincial housing committees. I have been part of developing the First Nations Housing Managers Certificate Program at Vancouver Island University and am still faculty, teaching the courses and amending the curriculum.

Around 2010 I was completely frustrated with my work. Everyday felt like groundhogs’ day. I did the same thing over and over, in different places, doing some good but knowing that the systematic issues were not being addressed. I didn’t think the problems were properly understood. The story of on-reserve housing had not been told and it needed to be.

I went to UVIC and asked for a space in their PHD program so I could write 80 years (or so) of the history of government housing programs on reserves. They helped me assemble a team from UVIC…Dr. John Lutz (history), Dr. Wendy Marks (history), Dr. Jeff Corntassel (Indigenous government) and Dr. Richard Harris (historical geography) from McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario.

In 2016 I graduated…now I’m Dr. Sylvia Olsen. You will find some of my work here on this page. But I eat and sleep housing so the work goes on and on and on…