Public housing

I grew up in HLMs in the North. The system is not working for Indigenous people

This first person chronicle is written by Katłįà Lafferty from Yellowknife. Learn more about CBC North’s first-person chronicles here.

I recently traveled to Geneva where I attended the 90th session of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. I was there to express my concerns about the routine placement of children in Canada in inadequate social housing.

My family has lived in public housing in the Northwest Territories for three generations now. For us, social housing has become an intergenerational trap.

As children, we moved around a lot. In just a few years, I have lived in three separate social housing units in Sissons Court in Yellowknife. Then, when I was a teenager, I lived with my grandmother in a quadruplex behind the bowling alley in downtown Yellowknife.

My grandmother made ends meet by selling traditional clothes under the table. My dad didn’t live with us but he contributed through his smuggling business. Their incomes were not considered legitimate, but if they had “real” jobs, the rent would have increased significantly for a unit that was not worth the high cost of living.

This is an example of how the public housing system perpetuates crime – sometimes it’s more affordable to earn a living illegally than to work full time for minimum wage while paying a stranger to babysit your children.

When I had my first son, I lived in a quadruplex in downtown Yellowknife identical to the one I once lived in with my grandmother. But I was in an unhealthy relationship and wanted more for myself and my son. We moved to Edmonton so I could go to post-secondary school.

It meant giving up my residence in the North and losing my place on a long waiting list for social housing. It’s something Northerners are routinely forced to do when pursuing higher education, even if they want to study inland, as a recent external study documented. aurora college programming review.

Lafferty’s daughter in their Victoria apartment, when Lafferty left the Northwest Territories for law school. (Submitted by Katłįà Lafferty)

As I write, I live in social housing with my mother in her home community of N’Dilo. I am here for the summer to work and I have nowhere to really call home because once again I left the North to pursue my post-secondary studies.

It doesn’t matter that my matrilineal line runs deep in the North – government-run public housing is dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land.

Then there’s the myriad of public housing policies that lack cultural sensitivity, like the banning of pets (even therapy dogs), the banning of home-based businesses, the demeaning mandatory reporting of monthly income by the review of bank statements and tax returns, and the focus on overcrowding.

In my view, “overcrowding” is really just a lack of consideration on the part of the government to integrate indigenous cultural systems into planning and architecture. Growing up with my grandmother we always had lots of visitors but if anyone was to visit for a long time it would be reported to the housing authority. Such policies prevent tenants from making their own decisions, even when it comes to supporting extended relatives who may be in need of housing.

Indigenous peoples should have more authority to make decisions about housing in their communities, combining culturally appropriate wrap-around services and home ownership in the form of “returning to the land”: fulfilling the promises of Truth and Reconciliation Initiative, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the National Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which mentions the need for housing for safety nearly 400 times.

Although the federal government and the territorial housing corporation have begun to partner with some Aboriginal groups, TNO Housing and the federal agencies that fund housing in the territory still largely control the program. Indigenous-led housing, with Indigenous peoples responsible for our own inherent sovereignty as we were before colonization, would mean a loss of control by these organizations. It’s a freedom that my grandmother once knew well. If there had been Indigenous run housing all along, my family would be living off the grid and rent free.

The main entrance to a building with Fort Gary written above the door.
The Fort Gary apartment building in Yellowknife, where Lafferty lived with her grandmother, mother and aunt. (Submitted by Katłįà Lafferty)

My grandmother used to tell me what her life was like when she grew up on the land, without running water or electricity, at a time when no one claimed ownership. The land was considered communal, to be respected and shared. Now it is bought and sold, divided and conquered.

It was hard work living on the land, but she didn’t complain. Living on the land gave him strength, purpose, a sense of belonging and a sense of autonomy – something that public housing sorely lacks.

Home is where the heart is, they say. This is where life begins and should be a place of safety, love, health, security, happiness, respect and kinship. But here in the North, it is difficult for many Aboriginal people to have a sense of belonging because of past wrongs.

It wouldn’t have taken a trip to the other side of the world and to the UN to let people know how important it is for a child to have a healthy home. Hopefully, this kind of advocacy will spark change so families in northern social housing can find a place they can truly call home.


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