This post was written by current student, Heather Norris.
Some thoughts on what I have come to know through stories of lived experiences
I write from my perspective as an Anishinabe woman whose ancestry is rooted in the Algonquin First Nations community of Pikwàkanagàn,situated on the shores of the Bonnechere River and Golden Lake in Renfrew County, Ontario.
The concept of ‘housing’ in regards to disabled Aboriginal women is more than just a question of obtaining a safe and physically accessible place to live (albeit its importance must not be dismissed), it is part of a broader dialogue. The legacies of historical and contemporary colonialism resulting in the severances of ties from the land base, coupled with the political legal definitions of “Indianess” in Canada has not only impacted the ways in which disability, housing, and home have been re-shaped in the lives of disabled Aboriginal women since settler contact, but it has also restricted disabled women’s ability to access appropriate and culturally relevant programs and services from all levels of government.
Within Indigenous cultures and worldviews where there exists a disconnection from the land base, there also exists a profound loss of ‘home’, a separation, or a loss of identity resulting in a cultural ambiguity that is passed on from one generation to the next. Andrea Smith, a Native-American scholar and activist suggests that the process of land displacement has resulted in a form of spiritual genocide in that “Native spiritualities are land based, they are tied to the land base from which they originate” (p.121). It is telling indeed, that in te reo Maori (the Maori language) the word used for land, is also the same word used to refer to a ‘placenta’, a vital organ required for sustaining life in an unborn child, which if severed can cause grievous results.(Senier & Barker, 2013, p.129) From an Indigenous perspective the notion of housing and homelessness now moves beyond that of obtaining housing alone to a notion of ‘feeling home’ imbedded in our relationships to our land, family, and community, connections carved within our mind body, spirit and emotions which shape our identities as Indigenous peoples. In essence “feeling home” is about a harmony of interconnectedness, a balance among all our relationships. A disruption to this balance results in disharmony and a rupturing of “feeling home’, analogous to a spiritual and physical homelessness.
Keeping this in mind, it has been estimated that approximately 25,000 Aboriginal women who lost their status between 1867 and 1985 were forced to leave their communities, (Patrick, 2014, p.66) my grandmother included. Forced removal from their communities through the imposed legislation of the “marrying-out clause in Section 12(1) (b) of the Indian Act has left a legacy of inter-generational alienation from their cultures and communities. Not only were these women not legally recognized as “Indian” within the political-legal framework of the Canadian state, they often were not recognized as being a ‘legitimate Indian’ by “Status” holding members( often relatives ) in their own reserve communities. These women, unlike those holding “Status”, could not return to their communities to live once they became enfranchised into the Canadian state.
The divisive categorical tool of Status and non-Status Indian, imposed by the Indian Act of 1876 continues to be utilized by all levels of government to determine who is eligible and who is not eligible for government services and programs, an issue too complex to fully address here. However such legislation has left non-status disabled Aboriginal women living in the urban centers at extreme disadvantage when trying to access housing that is not only accessible and safe, but is also culturally appropriate. A municipal Native run housing agency in the city where my study took place, although no longer under federal jurisdiction, continues to use this tool as a means to determine who qualifies for Native housing units in the city. The agency requires proof of Aboriginal ancestry before an individual can be put on the waiting list for housing units. This can be problematic for many non-Status Aboriginal women, since over time, records of Aboriginal ancestry often were inaccurate, incomplete or simple went missing. Two out of the four women I spoke with were unable to access Aboriginal housing because of their inability to prove Aboriginal ancestry. Unlike their status holding counterparts, disabled Aboriginal women who do not hold status are unable to return to their reserve to live, forcing them to look elsewhere, often within mainstream programs and services.
Although my study focused on Aboriginal women living in the urban centers, it would be remiss of me not to mentions that disabled Aboriginal women who hold ‘Status’ are not immune to exclusionary processes in relation to housing and home either. For example, even though disabled Aboriginal women who hold ‘Status’ have the option to live on reserve, this option is often prohibitive due to barriers around inadequate support services, such as transportation or health care, poor and inaccessible infrastructure around roads and buildings as well as attitudinal barriers related to disability in general. All of these issues arose several times during the course of informal conversations in the community, as well as during an interview with one of the participants enrolled in my study.
The fact that there are limited accessible housing options available for single disabled Aboriginal women within Native housing exacerbates the above dilemma. Except for some senior housing units, supportive housing units were non-existent.
To conclude, disabled Aboriginal women continue to experience the colonial legacy of exclusion and marginalization from their family, communities and cultures in their struggles towards obtaining safe, accessible and culturally appropriate housing, of “feeling home” with our ancient homeland. It is time we begin to speak out against these injustices and reclaim our own pathways home.
Patrick, C. (2014). Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada: A literature Review. Toronto, ON: The Homeless Hub Press.
Senier, S. & Barker,C. (2013). ‘Introduction’. Journal of Literacy & Cultural Disability Studies, 7(2):123-140.
Smith, A. (2005). Conquest-Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide Brooklyn, NY: South End Press.