In a keynote address he made at the Poverty Challenge event held recently at the University of Ottawa, Trudeau scholar Jesse A. Thistle said that being homeless to an Indigenous person “is about being outside their relationship web of All My Relations.”
“Just when you close your eyes and you think, what’s your home? You don’t think of your house, you think of the way the apple pie is cooked on New Year’s or the gifts that you get from your grandmother – it’s the relationships that matter, the relationships you have in place.”
In his Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, released on October 26, 2017, Thistle pinpoints the 12 dimensions of Indigenous Homelessness as articulated by Indigenous Peoples across Canada, the first of which is Historic Displacement Homelessness.
Thistle, who used to be the national representative for The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH)’s executive board on Indigenous homelessness, said in an interview that while he liked the Canadian definition released in 2012, he believed it didn’t describe what he went through as an Indigenous person.
“I’d read through the Canadian definition of homelessness which articulated it as being unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally sheltered, and absolute homelessness, [but] I thought, ‘this doesn’t describe what I went through as an Indigenous person.’”
So in 2015, Thistle went to Montreal to meet with the COH’s representatives and share his own perspective. He was subsequently hired by the non-profit organization to work on a new definition, which would take into account the Indigenous perspective.
IT WAS MEANT TO BE
Unsure as to whether he and COH were meant to collaborate on this project, Thistle said he first had to “enter through a ceremony and ask Creator,” as it is customary in Indigenous culture.
Then, in 2016, Toronto’s Indigenous communities directed Thistle to Jenny Blackbird, a knowledge keeper in Toronto, who advised that he and COH’s Director Steve Gaetz enter a pipe ceremony together.
“Jenny asked the spirit to guide our work. Afterward, she said that her spirit altar – the woodpecker – might appear; and if it did, it would be a really good sign,” Thistle told the public during his keynote speech. “No sooner did she finish the opening prayer drum song did the woodpecker show up. We all understood that we were supposed to do the work then.”
For many Indigenous peoples, the notion of connectedness – to the land, nature, human beings, and other animals – is central to their values and beliefs. In his paper, Thistle writes that the circle of life, “as seen with the Indigenous medicine wheels and the Indigenous perspective of ‘All My Relations’, is a recurring shape that represents interconnectivity.”
“Blackbird closed with another pipe ceremony, saying that the definition was ‘representative of bringing fire to the issue of Indigenous homelessness,’ meaning that it would illuminate the issue of homelessness, not only for Indigenous people but for all people,” the Vanier scholar further explained during his recent address.
In order to elaborate his Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, Thistle looked at different literature from various Indigenous scholars around the world. He said he and COH went through multiple levels of consultations with Indigenous peoples, scholars, and non-Indigenous people who worked in the field of Indigenous homelessness, and asked them what they thought Indigenous homelessness could be based on from their own personal experience.
“Really, it’s community knowledge. I don’t own these ideas. I did not come up with these ideas, I compiled them together and made it into something that was readable and understandable for everybody else,” he said in an interview at the Poverty Challenge.
IT ALL STARTED WITH DISPOSSESSION
Thistle, who hails from Northern Saskatchewan, the site of the historic 1870 Battle of Batoche, famously led by Louis Riel, and the subsequent 1885 resistance, said while his people won the battle, they were never compensated justly.
“We won our rights with Manitoba in 1870 whereby the government of Canada guaranteed our language, our religion, and our right to the land. You know what happened: we never got our land, we lost our language, and we lost our religion and were pushed further West.”
After Sir John A. Macdonald lobbied the British Crown for the transfer of Rupert’s land, then under the threat of annexation by the U.S., the Hudson’s Bay Company ceded, in 1868, the territory to the Dominion of Canada. Thistle said the Métis and Indigenous people who lived there were never consulted.
At the time, Northern land was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. “It’s kind of like Eatons or Sears selling Ottawa without asking anybody who lived there – that’s kind of crazy.”
Riel stood up and fought for Métis and First Nations rights – and they won. But despite the Manitoba Act, which guaranteed land for the Métis “half-breeds”, as they were called back then, as well as language and Catholic rights, what they got out of it was a dismal individual treaty.
“Sir John A. Macdonald decided to treat with [the Métis] individually to extinguish their aboriginal rights to land enshrined in British law with the Royal Proclamation of 1763.” This, Thistle said, was different from how they treated with First Nations. “They treated communally with First Nations. They gave them reservations, they gave them treaty rights, they signed treaties; they didn’t do that with the Métis.”
In Thistle’s view, the treaty commissioners were “predatory speculators” who would buy the Métis scripts at a fraction of the price. “It was a huge land boom off the backs of Métis script,” he lamented.
“From that point, I theorized in the Definition [that] that’s the first dimension – dispossession; homelessness starts there.”
For Thistle, the fact that his family lost its land is directly correlated with the way in which colonial settlers and governments dealt with the Métis. “My roots of homelessness go all the way back to that; all the way back to not having anything,” he said.
In the course of his extensive research, Thistle found two groundbreaking reports that were released in 1998 and 2003 respectively in Australia and New Zealand, and which situated Aborigine homelessness in broader British Imperialism.
“The reports found that Aboriginal people, through colonial projects, had been dispossessed and marginalized and discriminated against by the government, settlers, projects of forced assimilation, and that’s what really drives Indigenous homelessness on the ground,” he said.
According to the reports, Aborigine concept of homelessness, “a collective feeling of rootlessness,” did not fit standard Western ideas of homelessness – of being without a structure of habitation.
Thistle said that in Canada, such factors as the historic unfulfilled treaties, the Sixties Scoop, being pushed off reservations, and the relocations, directly contributed to Indigenous homelessness. As an example, Thistle cited the High Arctic Relocation that took place in the 1950s, when several Inuit were moved by the Government of Canada from their homes in Northern Quebec and sent out to Alert Bay, B.C., and Grise Fjord, Nunavut, where everything was completely different. “They were dispossessed of their land. And that’s why that’s number one,” he said.
AND HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
In a recent interview Thistle said the way the Trudeau government has handled consultations with Indigenous people in the contentious Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is disappointing.
“What they’re doing is pitting people against each other and that’s really underhanded and for me, it’s undoing any good that this administration has done.”
“It happened right after the Colten Boushie, right after the Tina Fontaine [cases], these really sensitive moments when it could have gone either way, where Reconciliation could have been a beautiful flowering from there, but the same old structures are in place, the same old business, the same old mentality that keeps driving the project in that way regardless of how you look publicly.”
Thistle nonetheless acknowledges that it’s complicated because “there’s a lot of money on the line,” with big businesses having “tainted their relationship process.”
“Naturally, some First Nations leaders are intoxicated by money because they have had none for so long, while others are opposing and saying no – no matter what they give us is going to be peanuts anyway,” he lamented, adding that [Indigenous people] have already been through this “process of colonization.”
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC 2015) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (adopted by Canada in May 2016), “Developers must obtain free, prior, informed consent of the First Nations whose territory would be impacted by a development project.”
The Trudeau government has been heavily criticized for attempting to speed up the approval of the Trans Mountain project, and for not seriously taking into account First Nations’ concerns about its potential impact on the environment.
‘STOP BLAMING OTHERS AND TAKE RESPONSIBILITY’
As Thistle points out in his paper, Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, mental illness and substance abuse, among other things, are generally regarded as being the lot of the individual, not of society.
People, he said during an interview, place some moral blame on someone’s homelessness. “Either they’re not working hard enough or they have intemperance; so they have addiction issues, they abuse whatever money is given to them, they live off the charity of others.”
This, he explained, is called the “blame the victim narrative – [It] deflects ownership and responsibility of the systems that create the situation of homelessness that creates that person’s situation. And we’re all complicit in that – it’s called the liberal order here in Canada.”
The liberal order is a hoax. “The more people commodify property and own it – and, in turn, dispossess other people – the more intense homelessness becomes. This is happening directly to Indigenous people – the first dimension.”
For Thistle, it’s easier to blame that person for their individual or community, nation or homelessness, than it is to admit that maybe our ancestors were “duplicitous in the treaty process and didn’t follow the terms of the treaties and didn’t enter into the relationships that they’d promised these people to use their land.”
“What we’re doing in this liberal order is we’re producing one of the dimensions of indigenous homelessness,” he says, adding that it’s easier to call that person a drunk or say that they have no industry and they can’t work or they need more reform, than it is to look at yourself and say, ‘maybe I should share a portion of my property, maybe I should force my government to honour the treaties, because that takes work, and sacrifice and people are comfortable, right?’”
Thistle, who in the past has struggled with mental disruption and addictions, said that what Indigenous people were really suffering from is what he refers to as “intergenerational trauma”, which he believes has been inflicted upon his people and expresses itself through “manifestations of psychological disturbance.”
RECENT SHIFTS IN POLICY
When asked if his new Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada had spurred any shifts in policy, Thistle said he had spoken to Tim Richter, President of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, who informed him that there had been shifts in the household sector and within Indigenous communities as well.
“It’s not only domestic changes, there are now global changes that are happening,” he said, noting that the Māori scholars of New Zealand are also looking at the definition.
Thistle added that St. Michael’s Hospital in Sudbury wants to use it to implement policy and practice for medical doctors across the country.
Bay Ward councillor Marc Taylor, who was also a keynote speaker at The Poverty Challenge, said he had considered Thistle’s Definition in a report he released earlier this year on housing, homelessness, affordability, and poverty in Ottawa. “I actually used the insight of Jesse’s definition of Indigenous homelessness in that report, because it’s one of the places in our community where there is a misrepresentation of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness.”
TACKLING POVERTY ISN’T EASY
Referring to the $2.1-billion Ottawa Light Rail Transit project, Taylor said in his closing remarks that while building a new rail system is costly, it is easier to do than tackle poverty.
“We need engineers, we need financing, we need all of the professional people we’re going to be able to do it. But it’s not the first railway ever built, it’s not the first LRT ever built, and you know, the physics of building it are the physics of building it.”
Poverty, on the other hand, is a highly complex, multifaceted issue that needs to be dealt with in a way that engages leaders across all sectors, all levels of government, as well as all members of the population, regardless of their economic, ethnic, religious and cultural background.
“Tackling challenges like poverty, tackling challenges like the systemic barriers in the system that you experienced today, that’s not easy. That’s harder than building that train; because every single individual in the system, whether they’re on one side of the counter or the other, is different. They are all travelling different paths, they all have different circumstances, they are all in different situations. So how do you design a system that can respond to every single person here who comes in contact with it?”
The key, he concluded, to solving the poverty and homelessness issues in Canada and globally, lies in communication and education.
“It’s about taking the time to have those conversations with people who are the end user, and trying to approach it with compassion, and be solution-focused. And, to strip away those attitudes that we have towards people who have less than us.”
THE POVERTY CHALLENGE: ENGAGING LEADERS
At the Poverty Challenge hosted by the University of Ottawa on May 12th, 2018, Taylor said that the government had started investing in housing, strategies, and plans.
“There needs to be a lot more investment, and there needs to be more targeted investment that’s informed by evidence, he conceded, adding that the Poverty Challenge initiative was “a good way of getting some evidence in your hands about some of the challenges – the systemic barriers that are in the system that we face.”
The Poverty Challenge was organized by volunteers from Impact Hub Ottawa, A Way Home Ottawa, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services (CRECS), Carleton University, United Way Ottawa, and several other private, public and non-profit partners.
Over a hundred participants from the government, health, business, education and non-profit sectors were able to experience homelessness for a day and to further their understanding of the challenges faced by homeless people when attempting to navigate the system.
Renée Michelle Michaud, a volunteer member of the organizing committee for the Poverty Challenge, explained in an interview that each of the eight participating groups was assigned expert profiles based on real people whose shoes they had to fill for one day.
“We have everything from mental health to coming from a family that is not emotionally supportive, we have sexual abuse, we have people who are coming with physical disabilities as well. It’s a wide array of challenges that these people are facing to try and navigate the system.”
The event, she said, was meant to create compassion, awareness, and momentum. “That’s what we’re hoping to move towards, that’s the action we want to take after today, which is why we’re launching the Linking Leaders workshop series.”
The program will be repeated on a yearly basis, but with a different social cause, a different theme, this year being housing and homelessness.
CIVIC LEADERSHIP SERIES ON HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS
Linking Leaders- Civic Leadership Series on Housing & Homelessness is set to take place June 13, September 19, October 17, and will culminate on November 22, just in time for National Housing Day.
“Civic leaders from across the city, across all sectors – business, education, not-for-profit, health, government – people who are decision-makers, who can affect policy, who can find opportunities in the system to formalize partnerships, between all of these different services, will be invited to the series,” said Michaud.
The workshops, she said, will be similar to the May 12th experience, but in smaller, three-hour evening sessions where people “with lived experience will be coming in to give a walking tour of the city to show the leaders, board members, councillors, and people in decision-making positions, and what their reality was when they were trying to navigate the system and trying to rise above poverty.”
“After all of this experiential learning, site visits, touring the city, speaking to policymakers, speaking to experts from other cities where they’ve been able to reduce the rates of homelessness, the hope is that it will give them energy, the steam needed to come together and to take concerted action.”
The goal, Michaud said, is “to get some of our leaders to continue to do the work but to take action that’s measurable, that’s specific, that will move the needle.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated at 1:30 pm on May 22, 2018, to reflect that the name of the President of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness is Tim Richter – not Mark Richard, as erroneously stated in the original version. Also, in the first paragraph, under RECENT SHIFT IN POLICY, the part “The Poverty Challenge was organized by Impact Hub Ottawa, in collaboration with A Way Home Ottawa…” was replaced with “…organized by volunteers from Impact Hub Ottawa, A Way Home Ottawa…“
Lastly, under the section “The Poverty Challenge: Engaging Leaders”, the part (see in bold) of the quote “That’s what we’re hoping to move towards, that’s the action we want to take after today, which is why we’re launching the Linking Leaders workshop series, a program hosted by Impact Hub Ottawa…” was removed to reflect the fact that the series are the fruit of a collaborative effort.