How We Define Indigenous Homelessness Matters
It’s about more than just finding shelter.
Andrew Johnston who is half Cree and half Ojibway. | Image courtesy of author.
The first time Andrew Johnston slept outdoors, he curled up under a tree.
His schizophrenic episodes worsening, he'd been kicked out of a shelter for drinking, and was so exhausted he ditched a bag of his only belongings because it was too heavy to carry.
"I didn't know where to go," Johnston says. "I was just roaming the streets."
That was about eight years ago. Today Johnston has a home in more ways than one.
Johnston is half Ojibway and half Cree. He was born in Toronto but grew up on a reserve near Cape Croker, on Ontario's Bruce Peninsula. He lived with his brother and mother. When his stepfather walked out, it caused a rift in his family and Johnston rebelled.
By 14 he was doing drugs and drinking, and says now he was trying to find something to fill a hole he didn't realize was there. His early adult life involved a lot of bouncing between shelters.
Jesse Thistle knows all too well what that feels like. A Metis-Cree man with roots in Saskatchewan, Thistle was himself homeless for a decade, wrestling with a crack addiction on Toronto's streets.
But that period in Thistle's life—painful though it was —doesn't define him. Little does, but any complete description certainly includes titles like Governor General's Silver Medal winner, Vanier Scholar, and published historian.
The thing that Thistle and Johnston's experiences have in common is that their homelessness wasn't about lacking shelter. It was about broken relationships with family, their culture, the land, their identities.
"Indigenous homelessness must be considered as a loss of healthy relationships, spiritual, emotional, physical, political and economic relationships over time," Thistle told me.
"That's what the process of colonialism has eroded and starved out. The later houselenessness that occurs in adulthood is a product of that earlier Indigenous homelessness, the early loss of relations," he says.
Thistle should know. He literally wrote the definition himself.
Late last month Thistle published a formal definition of Indigenous Homelessness, written for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
It's the result of 18 months of work that included 39 drafts, a 10-person advisory panel, and input from more than 40 experts, academics, elders and people with lived experience.
So broad was Thistle's consultation for the document that he originally wanted to publish it without his name on it.
"This is community knowledge, this isn't my knowledge. I'm just the guy who wrote it," he says.
Thistle spun the concept out of an Indigenous teaching called All My Relations. It's the belief that each of us is connected—related—to everything else; the air we breathe, the earth we walk, the culture we're raised in. Lose those things, and you've lost your home whether or not there's a roof over your head.
The process of colonialism dispossesses Indigenous people of their land. It removes children from their families. It teaches them that their culture is something to be ashamed of. According to Thistle's definition, it literally takes away their identities, their homes.
And it's still on-going Thistle says, through things like the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, industrial projects that threaten traditional ways of life, even the Indian Act itself.
Since the newly-published definition was birthed in ceremony with a drum song in Winnipeg last month, Thistle has been practically everywhere—on the radio, in newspapers, speaking with politicians.
He'll meet with representatives from federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott's office later this month, armed with a document he hopes will help translate his and others' experiences into something Ottawa officialdom can understand.
"It's hard to explain to a policy maker that it's important to teach people their drum songs to help them off the streets," he says.
When he meets with Philpott's office, Thistle will argue that the solution to Indigenous homelessness isn't just to build more affordable housing (though that would likely help). It means finding ways to help people rebuild the relationships that colonialism breaks.
"We don't need to 'Indigenize' a huge organization like The Salvation Army. We need to direct money to the hands of Indigenous service providers who do understand the problem, who are already working to try to recover identity and help people recover their history," Thistle said.
That's at the root of what NaMeRes does. The Native Men's Residence in north Toronto grounds all of its programing in cultural teachings. And it's where Johnston rediscovered his home.
Growing up without much of his culture left a hole in Johnston's life that he didn't even recognize at first.
"It was like a lost kind of feeling," he says. "There was this void in my life that I didn't know how to fill. I felt like I was drifting from person to person and from community to community."
He found the community he needed at NaMeRes and its transitional housing program Sagatay. There are elders who teach skills like harvesting cedar and other medicines. There are Cree and Ojibway language classes, and sweat lodges every Wednesday.
"Everything we do, culture is first and foremost throughout our programming. It helps people regain their cultural identity," said Steve Teekens, the executive director of NaMeRes.
"It brings a sense of awareness that this is where I belong," Johnston said.
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