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.

What First Nations are saying about their housing

Over the past couple of years the First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council of BC managed the most comprehensive research project ever conducted into what First Nations people are saying about housing and infrastructure in BC First Nations. Over 90% said they want to take back control of their own housing and infrastructure services.

That’s not surprising given the abominable job the federal government has done of managing First Nations housing for close to a century.

There isn’t a Canadian who has driven through a First Nations reserve who hasn’t wondered why the housing is so substandard compared to neighbouring communities. We’ve all asked, “What is wrong…with those people…with the First Nation…with the system…with the government?” Most of us haven’t known which question to ask because we don’t understand how housing is acquired on reserves. We mistakenly start with what we know about housing in the rest of Canada and that will not get us even close to how housing works in First Nations. From that assumption we presume the first question is the right one. “What is wrong with those people?”

I got a job working in Tsartlip First Nation as their housing manager in the mid 1990s. I had lived in the community for more than 20 years by then and had just finished a Masters Degree and it still took me several years to figure out what questions to ask.

The questions were difficult because it was hard to believe that Canada had actually bungled the First Nations housing file so badly for so long.

A little background: In the 1930s the country was reeling from the Great Depression and housing, including First Nations housing, was in a crisis. The federal government responded by creating two housing systems…one system for the mainstream; focused on providing affordable and accessible lending mechanisms, establishing building standards and driving job creation, and one system for First Nations; a welfare-style distribution of small batches of building supplies designed by an Indian agent (often from afar). There was no thought of standards, financial tools or jobs.

The reserve system blocked First Nations from housing themselves and literally forced them to accept the government programs. Oh a person could move off the reserve, you might say. Yes but if you did, as a First Nations person you would not be welcome in mainstream communities and so your housing prospects would not necessarily improve. The same is still true today.

By the 1940s it had become blatantly obvious that the system the government had for housing on reserves—let’s be perfectly clear, First Nations people and their leadership had no control of the system whatsoever—had never and could never produce adequate housing.

Now here’s the rub. When the system failed, as it did over and over again, government agents took that to mean First Nations were unable to be successfully housed and that they needed more ‘help’. The history of housing in First Nations is a series of government fixes—one program after the other trying to fix the previous failure. Never once, that I could find in the records, did the Indian Department contemplate that the problem might rest with government, not the First Nations.

Of course I didn’t, because, in the deeply rooted racist worldview of Canadians, we believed that Indigenous people were not capable of managing their own affairs.

So when you drive through a reserve and wonder why the housing is in such disarray there is an easy answer. Because Canadians believed that First Nations people were not capable of managing their own affairs the government did the managing. The Indian Department designed the programs and controlled how they would be delivered and the lion’s share of government funding for First Nations housing returned right back into the pockets of the enormous “Indian industry” of bureaucrats and professionals who operated the system. And what you are looking at, when you drive through a community and see the ramshackle houses, is the outcome of that arrangement.

Of course housing on Indian reserves (legal name) looks different than in the rest of Canada. Nowhere else in this country has such a housing system existed. No other group of Canadians has been subject to so many state controls over their houses. No one else in Canada is refused the opportunity to go to a bank borrow money to build or renovate a house simply because they live in a certain community.

It takes a bit to grapple with. Long after most residential schools had closed their doors government agents still controlled how First Nations people would be housed. The ill health and social disruption caused by unimaginably substandard housing continues in many communities to this day.

But if we look at it from different angle then think about the time when you drove through a reserve more recently and said, “Hey there’s some really nice houses going up. I wonder what’s happening.” What’s happening is that many First Nations are taking control of their housing. There’s still only a trickle of independently wealthy and sophisticatedly administered communities that have really repatriated control over their housing. But it’s happening for the first time in a century.

So you can see what happens when First Nations are in control. Housing improves and, given time, First Nations housing will meet the same standards as elsewhere.

So as I said earlier, it’s no wonder First Nations want to take back control over their own housing. What is really the wonder is that it wasn’t until this recent federal government took over the reigns of the Indian Department that it decided the government itself was the problem and it ought to get out of the business of delivering services on reserves. It’s still not convinced that First Nations can do it themselves but First Nations are taking control in any case. As my First Nations daughter, Joni, who is an elected councillor for Tsartlip First Nations said, “Mom, at some point it isn’t about what the government does or doesn’t do. The cat is out of the bag. We are taking control over our own lives. The government will just need to figure that out and adjust.”

But there are still so many questions: Will government acknowledge the destruction caused by its housing system? Will there be compensation? Building a new system is a colossal task, will there be enough support to ensure its success?