For Indigenous people, the land is our home. We were dispossessed of it by European colonization, although ‘dispossession’ is perhaps not the correct word. The Knowledge Keepers that I’ve spoken to have told me that the people never considered themselves owners of land. We felt that we were a part of the land, that we belonged to her, not the other way around.
At this point in the history of “Canada,” it’s painfully obvious how Europeans viewed the land. And all non-Indigenous settlers here are indoctrinated into the same worldview: capitalism, ownership, economic “growth” at the expense of all else. In the process of establishing this new country, the powers that be did everything they could to extinguish Indigenous peoples out of existence. Residential schools, where they attempted to break our spirits and bodies. The intentional killing of bison — once the main food source for the people of the plains — to near-extinction. The reserve system, forcing folks who were nomadic for thousands of years onto barren patches of land far away from any of the new infrastructure being built.
And what followed was predictable and desirable for the whites: mass death, in the form of sickness, starvation, suicides, accidents and homicides. People were left to die. And for those who didn’t, lifelong poverty and an exodus of Indigenous people from reserves into cities followed. The experience of Indigenous people in cities in “Canada” has often included houselessness or housing insecurity as a direct result of these colonial policies. That continues today.
According to the recently-released “Finding Our Way Home” report issued by the Surrey Urban Indigenous Leadership Committee, one in every 26 Indigenous people in “Surrey,” home to the largest Indigenous population in the province, experiences homelessness. Compare that to one in every 236 of the non-Indigenous population. It’s a heartbreaking statistic. Our people deserve better. And it’s not a problem that is limited to Surrey.
Consider my friend, Zahra Bearspaw, a single mother of four currently living in the Metro “Vancouver” area. For many reasons, this is the territory she chooses as home. She uses a wheelchair and doesn’t have a car, but the Lower Mainland is a fairly accessible place to live — especially in comparison to her home community in small-town “Alberta.” But the rent is expensive, and trying to live on a disability pension with four children is not easy here. In fact, it is becoming almost impossible. With monthly rent of almost $2,300 for their modest two-bedroom apartment near a SkyTrain station, Zahra struggles to pay the bills and feed her family. On her TikTok account, she shares the challenges of her life, as well as the joys of raising her children.
Being Indigenous, Zahra does not have access to the intergenerational wealth that so many other “Canadians” do. Her parents have never owned land, or a home, so they do not have escalating property values to use as an inheritance for their children. In many ways, both sides of her family are still struggling with the acute symptoms of intergenerational trauma: her mother is a day school survivor and struggles with finding stability. Her father is a residential school survivor. Just three months ago, Zahra lost a 19-year-old niece to a poisoned drug supply.
No one in her family can offer her financial support. In fact, Zahra is doing better than many in her extended family in that regard. She regularly has family stay with her for weeks at a time without contributing to her income. So she and her four children live precariously, on the brink of eviction, with the incredible stress that comes with having payments automatically deducted from her bank account towards the insanely high-interest loans from predatory lenders that she was forced to turn to in tough times. At the end of every month, she must pay rent, and that often means skimping on groceries. And the cycle continues.
This isn’t an issue of money-management, or budgeting. This is an issue of chronic underfunding and soaring inflation that is hurting the most vulnerable among us. Poor people, many of whom are Indigenous, are therefore being disproportionately affected by these two aspects of the current economic situation in “Canada.”
Far from the assumption that many settlers have of Indigenous peoples being given “free” money or being supported by the “Canadian” state, all of so-called Canada’s wealth — all of it — comes from Indigenous people’s land. Every non-Indigenous “Canadian” is currently profiting, benefiting from, or living on, land that was stolen by colonial greed. This land, cared for by Indigenous people for more than 40,000 years, has quickly become poisoned, razed, mined and sold to the highest bidder.
In reality, the opposite is true: “Canada” is rich off the backs of Indigenous people, not the other way around. Middle-class folks across the country are struggling to deal with inflation and skyrocketing housing prices, but they’re doing it in the context of an ongoing Indigenous genocide that is leaving tens of thousands of people hungry and unhoused.
“Canada” has a moral obligation to house all Indigenous people, regardless of status, for we know that whether one is Status or non-Status — a distinction regulated by the federal government and not by Indigenous communities themselves — does not determine one’s experience of intergenerational trauma, racism, or housing insecurity.
Many people were coerced into giving up their Status for a multitude of reasons. Some did it to keep their kids from being stolen and sent to residential “school.” Women who married white men were stripped of their Status. Some Métis folks were actually Status Indians who took scrip, which is to say, signed a form that made them suddenly not an Indian anymore. For these folks, Métis identity was offered up as a sort of consolation prize. Zahra herself does not have Status, even though both of her parents are Indigenous.
Some folks across this land are waking up to the truth of Indigenous existence and resistance. Some in government and industry even sound like they care more about Indigenous people and our plight than their predecessors did. But the nature of capitalism with its relentless need for “growth” and profits doesn’t really allow governments or industry to do anything about this new awareness. Something structural would have to change in order to really address the situation — like increased disability payments, or an exponential increase in funding for low-income and Indigenous housing initiatives — and that’s clearly not on the table at this moment.
So, our people will continue to languish on street corners in the Downtown Eastside, and on sidewalks across the nation.
As the treaties state, we’ve been willing to share the bounty of the land with our new neighbours. But that hasn’t been enough for white folks. They have taken much more than what we offered, and kicked us off of the land altogether, pushing us onto reserves and into residential schools. They’ve dug deep below the Earth’s surface to steal ores, coal and metals from the land, creating massive profits for corporations that even most “Canadians” do not benefit from, much less the Indigenous people who are the original occupants of the land.
Providing housing for every Indigenous person is possible. “Canada” is rich. Haven’t we already spent billions on a contentious pipeline? Didn’t we just send billions to Ukraine in support of their war against colonization?
The very least “Canada” could do is ensure that the descendants of the Peoples who have lived here for 40,000 years — before Europeans “discovered” us — have homes.