Homelessness in Winnipeg’s Urban Aboriginal Population

Since the colonial period, deep-rooted marginalization and discrimination have continued to dominate the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. 1 The long history of injustices, such as the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop, the reserve system, and the unequal rates of incarceration continue to negatively impact Aboriginal peoples. 2 Structural barriers, such as employment discrimination, low wages, racism, and the intervention of Child and Family Services in the affairs of Aboriginal households continue to trap Aboriginal peoples in cycles of poverty.

Compared to other Canadian cities, my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba has the largest urban Aboriginal population. This large demographic faces particular cultural, social, and economic challenges which do not affect the non-Aboriginal population. This is demonstrated by the fact that Aboriginal Manitobans experience poverty at nearly double the rate of the general population. High housing costs and limited subsidized housing options, as well as discriminatory policies – such as the Indian Act and the reserve system – make finding a home difficult for low-income Aboriginal peoples in Winnipeg.3

Along with poverty, Aboriginal peoples are more likely to experience homelessness than non-Aboriginal peoples. Overcrowding and a lack of running water, on many reserves, put pressure on these groups to migrate to the city. Once there, many Aboriginal peoples are forced to choose between poor-quality housing in their reserve communities and unaffordable, inadequate housing situations in Winnipeg.

Anyone moving to a major urban centre is likely to face significant hardships, as they adapt to a new culture and lifestyle. Transitioning into an urban environment means it is necessary to obtain government issued identification (ID) in order to access housing supports, apply for the criminal record checks needed for employment, or to open a bank account. It is not only difficult for recent urban Aboriginal migrants to obtain an ID, it is also challenging to obtain a Certificate of Indian Status card. The struggle to obtain government issued ID is one of the many barriers preventing Aboriginal peoples from accessing basic resources, such as housing, in Winnipeg.

More federal involvement in housing policy is necessary to combat Aboriginal homelessness; further, Aboriginal peoples need to be incorporated into the policy planning process. When Aboriginal peoples are invited to design, deliver, and govern housing initiatives, the projects will gain credibility within the community and therefore enjoy more success. Aboriginally-led social services tend to deliver culturally-relative programs, which are based upon thoughtful considerations of the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those individuals within the urban Aboriginal population.

As increasing numbers of Aboriginal migrants transition into urban environments, they bring with them the potential to contribute to that society, if equipped with the tools to thrive. Improved access to quality and affordable housing in Winnipeg must be a prerequisite for full integration into mainstream society. Policymakers must recognize that the problems faced by Aboriginal migrants are not simply based on ‘personal factors’ or individual lifestyle choices: rather, they are connected to issues of poverty, discrimination, and histories of colonization. Housing policymakers in Winnipeg must work to enhance the autonomy and participation of Aboriginal peoples in housing development projects, by adopting more socially inclusive and community-based approaches.

1. [‘Aboriginal peoples' is used to refer to those who identify as First Nations (North American Indian), Métis, or Inuk (Inuit), and/or those who are Registered or Treaty Indians (registered under the Indian Act of Canada), and/or those who have membership in a First Nation or Indian band. Aboriginal Peoples of Canada are defined in the Constitution Act, 1982, Section 35 (2) as including the Indian, Inuit, and Métis peoples of Canada.]

2. [The large-scale removal or 'scooping' of Indigenous children from their homes, communities, and families throughout the 1960s, and their subsequent adoption into predominantly non-indigenous, middle-class families across the United States and Canada.]

3. [The Indian Act (introduced in 1876) is the principal statute through which the federal government administers Indian status, local First Nations governments, and the management of reserve land and communal monies. It is an evolving document that has enabled trauma, human rights violations, and social and cultural disruption for generations of Aboriginal peoples.]