Homelessness an Aboriginal Problem

By Reuel S. Amdur

Irene Compton, a Saulteaux, is the child of a mother who was a residential school survivor. “She was ashamed of her culture, her language, her identity.” Irene inherited her mother’s suffering, feeling lost and living with low self-esteem. It was her work at Ottawa’s Minwaashin Lodge, where she is now Manager of Cultural Programming, that has empowered her. Compton moderated a panel at the Community Forum on Homelessness in Ottawa on November 23, National Housing Day.

Minwaashin Lodge serves Aboriginal women, providing counseling for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. There is a shelter program through Oshki Kizis Lodge for women and children fleeing violence. As well, there are youth programs, traditional healing and Elder programs, a two-spirit program, and others.

Sandra Martin, a Micmac, spoke as a client of Minwaashin Lodge. She came to Ottawa from Montreal, where she was having serious problems functioning in the community. She was unable to be an effective parent and had to leave her children in Montreal. Her life had been filled with abuse, violence, and alcohol, leaving her helpless and alone. When she arrived at Minwaashin Lodge, encountering its First Nations ambiance, she felt a sense of security coming over her.

While she felt secure at the Lodge, she needed help going into town. The outside was threatening. Staff gave her encouragement to get on a bus and move around the city. With the help of the Lodge, she was able to overcome her fears and settle down to a more successful social adjustment. What is more, when her oldest son saw that she was able to change her life, he decided that he could as well.

Oshi Kizis was represented by Michelle Penny, a Saulteaux survivor of the ’60’s scoop. She visits Aboriginal women in jail, bringing ceremonies such as smudging and drumming. Her counseling has a cultural component. Many of the women in jail are in for breach of probation, often related to drug and alcohol abuse. A growing number are in for assault. She finds that all have been victims of violence of one sort or another. Once they get out of jail, the trick is to find them a place to stay, especially for those who are still abusing drugs or alcohol. Most shelters are not prepared to accept those still using.

Bruce Ransom is a Cree who spoke for Wabano Aboriginal Health Centre. He talked of the discrimination that Aboriginals experience, both because of their race but, for those with whom he has frequent contact, also because they are on welfare. Those lacking status have an additional barrier. He sorrowfully acknowledged that there is prejudice among Aboriginals, based on status. Government regulations help to perpetuate such prejudice.

Some of the issues identified as important for health services include the negative results of the residential schools experience and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Many have been victims of sexual abuse. Ransom said that people served by Wabano get comfort from contact with people who look like them or who speak their language. Country food is also a plus.

The Inuit situation was described by Pam Kilabuck of Tungasuvvingat Inuit, an organization serving Inuit adjusting to urban life. Many were victims of residential schools or of relocation to the Far North. Urban Inuit tend to be highly transient. Of those served by her organization, 80% are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The forum also heard from Dr. Jeffrey Turnbull, President-Elect of the Canadian Medical Association. He told the meeting that poverty is the greatest predictor of poor health. Yet, Canada does not address it. Those most vulnerable to poverty, he pointed out, are First Nations people, rural Canadians, single parents, and people suffering physical or mental illness.

We know the solutions to homelessness and poverty, but the solutions, he said, are unpalatable to politicians and policy-makers. While health care expenditures are climbing constantly at some 5% a year, governments continue to cut welfare and social housing, a self-defeating approach since health is dependent on adequate income and housing. Turnbull argued that we need to address poverty and homelessness as a human rights issue. Adequate income and decent housing are human rights, he said—for everyone.