Lost connection: A conversation on Indigenous homelessness with scholar Jesse Thistle

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"Indigenous homelessness...is really about a displacement of healthy relationships over time through colonial interruption." Photo: Lucie Thistle

In October 2019, United Nations special rapporteur Leilani Farha released her report on the right to adequate housing for Indigenous peoples. The report found housing conditions for Indigenous peoples around the world to be “overwhelmingly abhorrent” and often in  violation of “the right to adequate housing, depriving them of their right to live in security and dignity.”

For a Canadian perspective on this issue, the Journal spoke with Métis-Cree writer and academic Jesse Thistle, an assistant professor at York University, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and Vanier Scholar, and winner of the Governor General’s Academic Medal. This interview has been edited for length.

What are your thoughts on the UN’s report?

I think [it’s] very explicit in capturing the scope of Indigenous homelessness as it relates to housing, and the right to adequate standard of living, basically.

Our governments are supposed to be beholden to Indigenous people who they’ve signed treaties with to be on the land. The housing that they’ve built, in many cases, is just inadequate or totally lacking infrastructure. Maintenance is almost non-existent. So all of that kind of plays into what [Farha] noted in her report.

In your work, you have a conception of “Indigenous homelessness.” Could you explain that? What are the factors affecting Indigenous people specifically?

Indigenous homelessness, as I’ve defined it through community consultation, is really about a displacement of healthy relationships over time through colonial interruption. What that means is, we’ve lost connection to land and land-based teachings.

When I say that, you’ve got to think about the land itself as a kind of home. Imagine going berry picking with your grandmother, or fishing with your grandfather, or hunting with your dad. Those were lessons. Those were universities. Those had systems of knowledge embedded within them; how to travel over the land, how to treat the land.

They also saw themselves as relations to the land, and all the creatures upon it. This is an ancient way of looking at human relations within the natural world that goes back in many different cultures, not just here in Canada. But Indigenous people here in Canada specifically have suffered an egregious displacement onto reserves where all those systems of knowledge were lost.

Then there’s a disconnection of spirit that’s happened as well. Indigenous worldviews, through the Christian conditioning of our youth—which was an altruistic effort, [but] what that did is, it took children out of their kinship networks and raised them in environments where they lost their sense of an Indigenous worldview and connection to the Creator.

Beyond that, then you have the loss of culture that’s happened because Indigenous culture was actually outlawed through official legislation. Then you have things like the Sixties Scoop, or what happened with the Millennial Scoop, where kids are taken out of their home and they lose connection to their family and they lose their languages and their customs.

Those are like the higher-level kinds of homelessness. Then you have to break it down to practicalities where, because the infrastructure is so bad on reserves, or in rural communities where often Métis people live, [or] Inuit settlements in the North, people will travel long distances to access things like health care, education, a job. That’s called mobility homelessness, and that’s a very specific type of homelessness that Indigenous people endure.

Beyond that, there’s overcrowded homelessness, because a lot of housing that was built in the ’50s and ’60s [was] when the Indigenous populations were a certain size. But the population’s exploded, and they haven’t built more. So now instead of having five people per household, there’s 20 or 30. That’s very common.

When I say disconnection from healthy relations, I also mean a healthy relation from the state, too, and all of its bureaucratic arms that are supposed to take care of Indigenous people.

If you go back to the treaties, that was the first relationship—from an Indigenous perspective, they thought they were making kin out of the settlers, and that they would work together. From the British imperial perspective, they were ceding land, they were taking land and extinguishing their rights to have it. So that’s the fundamental broken relationship that needs to be mended.

What do you think it would take to make that kind of change?

Well, there has to be a right to housing extended to Indigenous people, and with that, it would have to take into consideration all [the UN] recommendations, and they would have to meet a certain amount of those to say that the state is actually securing a measurable right to housing for Indigenous people. You would have to meet, let’s say, 75% of the recommendations. If there’s no mechanism to make it measurable and then enforceable, I don’t know if governments will take it up.

How can the church play a role in advocating for or helping mend these issues?

Well, it’s one of the biggest institutions, and I know that the Anglican church has always led the way in reconciliation. So I think you’re already doing the hard work, you’ve already tried to make amends, you’re trying to build those bridges. Just use the influence of the church and some of its resources to help.

And when I say that, I mean in consultation with Indigenous people. Communities know what they need; you have to facilitate them to do the work. That’s really, really important. Because the other way, the paternalistic way, didn’t work very well.

You experienced homelessness yourself. Has your own life influenced your work?

Yeah. That’s where a lot of my understanding of these different systems and issues comes from, my own personal experience. I was off and on the streets for about a decade; I was a crack addict. A lot of times the church helped me—they were one of the only institutions [that was] there. So I thank the church; they’re like a safety net for people.

All these dispossessions that I described happened through my family, because we’re Métis-Cree. We stood up against Canada during the North-West Resistance, and we had our land and our culture, everything, stripped away from us. We were impoverished and made to live on the sides of the roads, all the way up to my own generation, and that led to my own personal trauma with my family falling apart, and then my own homelessness in my adulthood. So I have a really good understanding of what I write about academically.

Thistle’s memoir, From the Ashes, is available through Simon & Schuster. His Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada can be found online at homelesshub.ca/IndigenousHomelessness.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct a typo.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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