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.