Save the date. I am doing that thing that people do…retiring. I’m not retiring me. I’m retiring my current work. I think there is a difference.
I eat and sleep housing. You’ve probably heard me say it before…that the work goes on and on and on… Working on housing can never stop, not until everyone has a safe, life-affirming place to be and to become.
I also live and work in the First Nations housing field and have done for what feels like forever. It started almost 50 years ago when I moved to Tsartlip FN and I realized that Canada was not the country I had imagined. It was the housing that struck me first. How can this be Canada? That when I crossed the road and realized that the people over on the reserve side didn’t have access to decent housing? How can it be that my hard working husband and I cannot borrow money or find any way to build our family an adequate home?
Later when I worked as Tsartlip’s housing manager I began to figure out how deeply rooted the problem was and how the housing system was a manifestation of the racist government housing programs– strong words but the programs were, in fact, the problem itself. I knew there was only one solution. First Nations needed to take back control of their housing…government bureaucrats were absolutely the wrong people to be making the decisions.
A lot has happened since the 1990s when I started working in the housing field. These days I work with a team of First Nations people, working towards the transfer of the care and control of housing from the Government of Canada to First Nations authority. If that sounds like a strange job, it is. Why, you might ask, in 2020, would Canada still have control over housing in First Nations? That was the topic of my Phd dissertation and I can’t answer that question in a few paragraphs. However, for now it is enough to say that Trudeau’s Liberals have finally resolved to get out of the business of delivering housing services to First Nations.
In 2016 the Honourable Carolyn Bennett, then Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced that the federal government would support the creation of First Nations institutions to replace the Indian Department. “Perhaps you might want to build your own CMHC,” she said. She was speaking in Ottawa to the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs’ Committee and Housing and Infrastructure (CCoHI). I was a member of the committee as one of the BC technical reps. I heard what she said. As soon as we got home the other two BC reps and I got together and wrote a proposal to get the government to put their money where their mouth was.
We began to organize. If government was going to get out of the business we were going to be ready. In fact we were not going to wait for the government to “give back” control we were going to go and get it.
BC First Nations are like that. They were the first in Canada to take control of their own health services, they have world-class programs for the homeless and are innovative leaders in FNs education. They worked with the provincial government to turn UNDRIP into DRIP-A, the first legislation of its kind in the country.
BC First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) said yes, let’s establish our own authority. In 2019 they mandated the BC First Nations Housing and Infrastructure Council (FNHIC) to create an institution and to make the transfer a reality.
It’s an unimaginably complex task. We have been listening to First Nations for several years. Their responses include “Yes we need to take control. The sooner the better.” “We have to make sure we don’t just mirror the mess already in place.” “I am excited to make our own mistakes and to fix them.” “Don’t transfer the government’s disaster onto our table without the means and the capacity to solve the problems.” “There are so many ways to improve. Let’s get started.” “Let’s make the new authority a truly by First Nations, for First Nations institution.”
Rarely do we get to be a part of finding the solutions to the big problems. Rarely do we get the opportunity to work with people who share the same vision and assume the responsibility to actually make it happen.
I got to do just that. For three years I’ve worked with the FNHIC developing the engagement strategy, creating teams of First Nations experts to do the work, listening to hundreds of First Nations people share their visions and concerns. I’ve written policy papers and analyzed government documents. I’ve worked with First Nations across the country as well as teams from the federal and provincial governments.
The next question is how do you stop doing the thing you have dreamed about? When does the time come to leave the dynamic group of people you helped create? The answers began to emerge in my mind after I rounded the bend towards the magic number of retirement. “I’m 65,” I would say to others. To myself I would say “I am 65 and most other 65 year old grandmothers are not getting up at 5 am for the first flight, travelling all over the country and living out of a suitcase.” When COVID 19 put an end to all of that I began to work more than ever. There would be no end to it. Unless I put an end to it. So I will and I have.
It’s the right time for me to move over. The space I occupy should be filled with younger energetic First Nations visionaries. This is their thing. I helped bring yesterday to today and will always be there to help bring today to tomorrow but I’m stepping over and out. January 1st I will reduce my input into FNHIC to a single project contract. By March I will be writing a paper for them and when that paper goes to print I am done.
Like I said. I’m not retiring. I’m retiring this work…perhaps the most important work of my life. Right now I’m thinking about what Kenny Rogers said “You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em…”
I will continue to contribute to the field, mostly by writing about it. This will not be the last you will hear from me on the topic of housing on reserves in Canada – promise.