Got COVID lemons? Make reconciliation lemonade

IndigNation by Bev Cardinal

We’re on the precipice of a perfect storm. COVID-19’s arrival — and unlikely departure anytime soon — seems to be a great opportunity for social scientists, sociologists and anyone seriously interested in human behaviour to study, observe, research and report on the impacts of this disease on marginalized, stigmatized and at-risk populations. Not solely from a health standpoint but from a public policy standpoint.

Concurrently, civil rights and anti-racism protestors, demonstrators and supporters are exposing and aggressively calling out governmental, institutional and societal denial and denunciation of the existence of racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination within publicly funded institutions like policing, justice, education, health and housing. 

Such a perfect storm: an enormous wave of opportunity to pay real and sincere attention to the needs of the people. A chance to begin to heal, mend and reconcile and, most importantly, to learn from one another. Addressing Indigenous homelessness is one example.

Through A Glass Darkly

Homelessness is at an all time high in Canada. This is not fake news — it is reality. In 2016, according to The State of Homelessness in Canada report published by Homeless Hub, at least 235,000 Canadians experienced homelessness in that year alone. The number is estimated to be close to 300,000 now. More recently, there is also evidence that the increase in economic insecurity brought on by the pandemic will continue to contribute to the increase in homeless populations across the country. 

Looking more closely, the homeless population is extremely diverse.  And when one looks through the glass even more deeply, the age and cultural demographics of our homeless populations are disturbing. While Indigenous (First Nation, Métis and Inuit) peoples nationwide comprise 4.3% of the Canadian population, Indigenous peoples constitute up to 34 per cent and, in some western cities like Regina, up to 80 per cent of our homeless population (Regina Point-in-Time Study, 2018).

Additionally, Indigenous youth and/or youth with histories of involvement in the child welfare system comprise 58 per cent of homeless youth in our nation.

Homelessness is like the evil COVID-19 virus; it knows no boundaries and it really only takes one or two unfortunate missteps to unleash its power to easily swallow us up and put us in its death grip.

So what’s to be done about it?

Flummoxed Non-Response

Although several community-based agencies provide emergency shelter, transitional housing, and domestic violence beds in cities across the province, most are under-funded by every level of government.  But funding aside, we must add to the flummoxed mix of governmental non-responsiveness, the very specific needs of our homeless Indigenous population. The needs are for deep, holistic, culturally-appropriate services to address what are known as The 12 Dimensions of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, that have resulted from generations of colonization, forced relocation, intergenerational trauma, and spiritual and cultural disintegration.

Jesse Thistle, a Saskatchewan-born Métis/Cree author and member of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University, succinctly summarizes the situation facing our people: “Indigenous people are homeless because they have been disconnected from their indigeneity… they are essentially living without any connection to All My Relations.”

It’s no wonder governments are flummoxed — they are least capable of providing holistic supports and services to and for Indigenous peoples. And we are no longer willing to accept their bureaucratic approaches. They didn’t work in 1867 and they won’t work now.

So I challenge each one of us to put a spotlight on the depth and magnitude of colonization that continues to impact Indigenous peoples to this day. 

Read. Maybe start with Jesse Thistle’s book From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless and Finding My Way. Take it in; small pieces at a time are preferred and recommended because it is harsh stuff. But, to be sure, there are answers.

We’ve reached the time for a reckoning. Each of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — have a personal role to play. The sooner we get started, the better the lemonade will be.