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.

Reravelling Canada

I want to be part of reravelling Canada. It can be a thing. The Urban Dictionary says reravel means to put something back together that has become unravelled. Wool workers get it. We have all reravelled balls of wool that have become a jumble. It’s not easy. It takes time. But if you don’t do it the whole thing is useless and you have to throw it away. I think it’s a good time to discover ways to reravel our country.

Unravelling Canada, my travel book about our 2015 knitting road trip, was meant to be a mental revisit of the country I was struggling to come to peace with. The book looks through the lens of knitters from coast to coast and is a gentle and somewhat off-beat analysis of Canada. During the time the book was floating in the publishing never neverland waiting to find a home, Canada, and indeed the world, has become truly unravelled.

In this country it might be said that the public unravelling began with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Idle no More. Although we know the unsettling of Canada has been going on for generations, the public’s consciousness has only been sparked for the past dozen years or so. Since then Canada’s comfortable space has been rattled. The recent convergence of social justice movements has been ramping up public pressure and our country is not fairing well.

International movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too and, of course, the COVID 19 pandemic have rearranged deeply held assumptions about race, gender and our collective health. In Canada, the report on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls and the discovery of the 215 graves from the Kamloops Residential School and hundreds more across the country have “shocked” even people who haven’t been listening. Closer to home, the “In Plain Sight” report on systemic racism in BC’s healthcare system have given us details, the real stories we can’t ignore. These are lessons we can’t forget.

We are grieving the loss of old growth and worried about whether we’ll remove the fish farms in time to give wild salmon a chance of survival. We have a deep disturbing anxiety about the outcomes of continued fracking and that Site C Damn is going ahead in spite of all our collective good sense.

And, as if we haven’t been rattled enough, the recent weather disaster, the hundreds of British Columbians who died in the heat wave, the loss of the tiny village of Lytton and the surrounding First Nations communities, reminds us of the climate crisis, the existential threat to our very survival.

I don’t know about you but I am unravelled. I am also a grandmother and I know that I don’t have the luxury of remaining unravelled for too long. My narrative must change to rallying the masses and building strategies and creating hope. I’m not willing to wait until the last drop of injustice has been eradicated before I call for another narrative, not to replace the unravelling but to go side-by-side.

As we continue to unearth the real stories of our past and our present and figure out our real identity I’m thinking we can also get serious about reravelling ourselves and our country. I’m not interested in wrapping it up again into a ball with the nasties buried in the middle. I’m not talking about shutting down the ravelling…there is so so so much more to do. The pressure needs to continue. I’m saying we need a new paradigm as well and new way to become whole and well and compassionate and real.

I don’t have a tidy wrap up for this blog because we have to build the new paradigm together–the reravelling–and so far we don’t know how to do that. Perhaps we need to wait and do more unravelling first. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure we can do both at the same time. The grandmother in me says pull ourselves together. The children need hope.

Grown-ups

Canada has been stuck in perpetual adolescence…unprepared to face the next step…growing up. I hope these painful days will be seen as a ritual moment when we were faced with our country’s true self and when we began to grow ourselves up.

Remember when you were a kid and you heard your parents whispering in the other room. You couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying. If they caught you listening they shushed you away and said that they talking about things that weren’t meant for kids’ ears.  

Remember the first time you heard your parents swear and then you realized that they probably swore all the time, just not when you were around.

Remember when you thought your parents, and especially your grandparents, were perfect and then found out your grandfather was an alcoholic and your grandmother still met up with her old boyfriend.

That’s us Canadians. We are grown-ups now. We are old enough to hear grown-up stories—the nasty ones everyone knew but didn’t want to talk about. We are old enough to know that our ancestors weren’t always the nice people we thought they were.

Hopefully now we will stop whispering. Hopefully we will believe the stories that are being told, especially about Canada’s particular racism against First Nations people.

Nothing has changed except our perception. But with that there is hope. Now we are coming face to face with the racism of our past we are better able to acknowledge the racism of our present and, with effort and determination, with everyone working together, perhaps prevent racism in our future.

That’s the challenge, Canadians…for all of us.

Human beings

Ron Martin and his sister Louise

You ask me for a solution—for some advice that will help the problem of racism towards me? Towards Indigenous people? That’s easy. I am not an Indian. I am not an Indigenous person. I am not a person with a disability. I am Koous. I am a human being. I am a human being in exactly the same way you are a human being. If people saw me as a human being—if people treated me like a human being I would receive the help and respectful care I need.

(Ron Martin, Mukwila, Tla o qui aht First Nation)

Ron Martin is a friend of mine. In our earlier lives we both married into the same family so we became relatives, of a sort. In the 1990s we worked together in the field of First Nations administration and travelled throughout the province. I heard Ron’s stories about being Nuu chah nulth and from Tla o qui aht. His family’s traditional lands include the world famous Long Beach near Tofino. We spent time on the beach imagining the life before. He told me the names of his ancestors going back more than 20 generations (reciting not reading their names—astounding).

Ten years ago Ron had a stroke. We no longer work together, but Ron was and still is one of my teachers. I asked him the other day if I could share this quote of what he told a class of nurses from UVIC while we were doing a workshop with them in the late 90s. His answer was, “Of course yes.”

During the discussion the students asked Ron if he could point to one thing that gets in the way of improving relations between Indigenous people and other Canadians. His answer was:

“We don’t know each other.”

There are a myriad of reasons why—all are understandable. That was 25 years ago. Hopefully we are getting to know each other better today.

I am not sure. Are we really listening to each other? Is it a two-way conversation? Are the minds and hearts open on both sides? Are we moving closer together or further apart?

But I am hopeful. My sense is that we will not move ahead in a good way, as a country, until we get do get to know each other and perhaps we are starting on that journey.

There’s a lot of “getting real” happening. Canada’s real history is becoming clearer. Canadian’s are getting over the façade of being the “good-guys” and getting real about the nasty side of our nature and our relationship with Indigenous people. Indigenous people are taking their place and thriving in every sector of society. They are thrivers, not just survivors—that’s real. White people (or whatever we call everyone who is not Indigenous) are not all bad, or all guilty, or all anything—that’s real. None of us have all the answers—that’s also real. We all need each other and to be compassionate with each other—that’s the most real of all.