On July 31, 2018, Here & Now’s Coordinator, Denisa Gavan-Koop sat down with Jesse Thistle and Althea Guiboche to discuss their Indigenous Definition of Homelessness , with a focus on what that means for Indigenous youth.

Denisa Gavan-Koop: Can you tell us about yourself and how you both got involved in this work?

Jesse Thistle: I am the former resident scholar of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Observatory on homelessness based out of Toronto, York University. I am also a Trudeau Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of History. I am a storyteller and study the history of Great Plains Indigenous peoples in Canada. I share my personal story of homelessness, trauma and history of my people and the dispossession that happened throughout my life. My family fell apart when I was 3 years old and I was raised outside of my community. In my work I speak to how this affected me and how I have made poor choices due to the trauma that I endured.

Through my work, I caught the attention of Stephen Gatez from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness which led me to join his team to work on homelessness. And I have used telling my story as a way of healing. But I kind of fell into it.

DGK: What led to the development of the Indigenous definition of homelessness?

JT: In 2014 I was elected to be the representative of Indigenous homelessness in Canada for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Research Priorities Areas Committee COHRPA. I was sitting around the table in Montreal during one of the meeting in 2014 and at the time they’d launched the Canadian definition of homelessness which is an essentially ‘houselessness’ and not having structured place to live and felt that it doesn’t really reflect anything that I have been through as an Indigenous person. I stuck my hand up and said we need to articulate Indigenous homelessness and tailor our programs to serve the needs of Indigenous people. It is up to us as the “research brain” at the COH to inform government and inform scholars to build policy. Everyone looked at me and said– that’s a brilliant idea! Do you want to do that? I didn’t know how much work that would be, but I said sure I’ll do it.

Stephen Gatez and Melanie Redman hired me in 2016 to lead the Indigenous Definition of Homelessness. But it was essential that everything had to be done through consultation. We all—Indigenous peoples—have different experiences of homelessness that needs to be considered throughout Canada. We needed to talk to Indigenous people all over the country and people with lived experiences. We also consulted with national elders, regional councillors and the National Steering Committee. It was a lot of work.

DGK: How was the development of Indigenous definition of homelessness community led initiative? Where youth involved in the process?

JT: Yes, there were people in the regional councillors that were involved that identified as youth. And I myself have youth homelessness experience and I draw from my experiences too. I would say about 10% of the people that we spoke to were considered youth. We spoke with many Indigenous people throughout Canada. It was essential that we spoke Indigenous people and understand their experiences of homelessness.

DGK: Did anything standout or surprise you during the development of the definition?

JT: The whole thing changed my perspective. What I thought was a personal thought of what I experienced such as the loss of my identify, culture and my sense of belonging, these losses don’t describe not having a place to live and that’s part of it too. Most of Indigenous people that we talked to, being “houseless” was a secondary effect. The dispossession of land, the breaking apart of families and the result of that is helplessness is all part of being homeless. For me that changed my perspective on homelessness completely and it makes us look at relationships as the main driver of homelessness or loss of relationships and not being able to connect.

When we put the Indigenous definition of homelessness out there, it was a bit revolutionary and I didn’t expect it to make waves, but it has and it’s getting other people to start reassessing what homelessness means, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for everybody. That is important. That’s Indigenous knowledge Indigenizing the Western way of thinking.

DGK: Where do you see youth fitting into the Indigenous definition of homelessness?

JT: Youth have a special role to play because a lot of youth are taken into [CFS] care. I believe that homelessness for Indigenous youth starts there and I’m sure if you talk to people that have been in care and are homelessness, they would probably articulate it the same way.

Creating a transition bridge early on for people in juvenile detention is important because homelessness is already occurring. They have already lost their culture and language and they will be pushed out into the world without any kin supports and suddenly they don’t have any institutional supports either. They are going to end up on the streets, because they don’t have anywhere else to go in society, so we need to focus on prevention of chronic, absolute homelessness by building those transition bridges and will need to consult with them so that they can provide us with points of intervention to “rescue” them from not having any institutional supports. They know what it’s like to be kicked out of group home, pushed out of CFS care. We can prevent 20-30 years of homelessness if those transition bridges are in place. So, it’s critical that we involve youth in the process.

DGK: As a community, where do you think we should concentrate our efforts in ending and preventing youth homelessness?

JT: We need to put pressure on the government to end child apprehension. I really believe that we should keep families together. The same amount of care needs to be given to Indigenous families. We need to focus more on relationships and restoring relationships. The government needs to change their perspective on “dealing” with Indigenous people and start acting like it’s we’re in relationships. That’s what the Treaties said. We are supposed to be in a relationship together. The broader public needs to stop “othering” Indigenous people and we need to break down the stigmas that prevents us from delivering care to Indigenous people. We need to do one kind thing every once in a while, and that speaks to the breaking down of barriers. We need to see ourselves as a community and not in competition with each other. We need to change the why we see each other and our relationships with one another. We need to come together as a community more.

DGK: What are you both currently working on? Jesse, we heard that you are in Winnipeg to complete work on the Indigenous definition of homelessness and the provision of health care services to the Indigenous community. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

JT: I am currently working on the Pekiwewin Project (Coming Home) with Dr. Janet Smylie in collaboration with St. Michael’s hospital. We won s funding grant through Inner-City Health Association based out of Ottawa. The idea of the project is to take the Indigenous definition of homelessness and apply it to health care to create guidelines for social service providers and medical practitioners, so they can better administer care to Indigenous homeless people.

To make it applicable in everyday life we need to localize it in two different cities in Cree territory primarily, in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. And that’s why I’m here in Winnipeg talking to people to see how they provide service to Indigenous people in these two cities. We will try to come up with something as revolutionary as the definition. We are building a template for Cree standards of care and from that we are hoping that other cities take it and tailors it to different First Nations and apply the right First Nations/Metis/Inuit languages to translate so that doctors in each different area to know how to act as relatives and provide care. The template that we will hopefully create will be applied differently in different communities. It will need to be Indigenized it to each region. Something that is Nation and culturally specific.


Jesse Thistle