The term Indigenous refers to 3 unique cultural groups across the land now known as Canada: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples. The term Indigenous Peoples is frequently used in international contexts as well to refer to their cultures globally. The term Indigenous acknowledges both commonalities, as well as the vast diversity of cultures, histories, teachings, languages and experiences that comprises the Indigenous population worldwide. Indigenous Peoples currently make up approximately 5% of the population in Canada.
Due to a number of historical and ongoing factors Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by homelessness. In the urban context, for example, Indigenous Peoples make up a significant percentage of people experiencing homelessness. Research shows that Indigenous homelessness/houselessness in major urban areas ranges from 20-50% of the total homeless population, while others have reported that the range may be much wider, at 11-96%. Put another way, in some Canadian cities such as Yellowknife or Whitehorse Indigenous Peoples make up 90% of the homeless population. In Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, an average of 50% of those experiencing homelessness/houselessness are Indigenous. In Toronto, Canada’s largest urban centre, Indigenous Peoples constitute around 23% of those experiencing homelessness/houselessness in the city, even though they make up only around 0.8% of the total population. In fact, one study found that 1 in 15 Indigenous Peoples in urban centres experience homelessness compared to 1 in 128 for the general population. This means that Urban Indigenous Peoples are 8 times more likely to experience homelessness/houselessness.
Homelessness/houselessness among Indigenous Peoples can be traced back to historical strategies to eliminate Indigenous Peoples which have resulted in trauma, ongoing oppression, racism and discrimination. Homelessness among Indigenous Peoples is a consequence of Canada’s history of colonization, and exploitation of Indigenous land and populations and strategies to assimilate or eliminate Indigenous Peoples. Significant abuse and cultural trauma have occurred through powerful and present-day governing policies such as the Doctrine of Discovery and the Indian Act forcibly putting Indigenous children into residential schools. Furthermore, the 60’s Scoop – which took Indigenous children and placed them in white foster homes within the child welfare system has furthered trauma, loss of cultural identity, and family and community dislocation all of which also contribute to homelessness/houselessness. In fact, 70.5% of Indigenous youth experiencing homelessness in Canada have been involved in the child welfare system, and 45% of Indigenous youth had their first homelessness/houselessness experience before the age of 16.
Many of the issues (including familial dysfunction, substance use, addictions, health issues, and community violence) faced by Indigenous Peoples that contribute to homelessness are linked to various types of historical trauma. Other factors include transitions from reserves to urban living in search of employment and increased opportunity, racism, landlord discrimination, compromised education opportunities and support and unemployment. As a result, research has shown that Indigenous Peoples disproportionately experience lower levels of education, poorer health, higher rates of unemployment and lower income levels compared to non-Indigenous people. There are also serious social issues stemming from the historical trauma including high incarceration rates and high suicide rates among youth all of which impact the health and well-being of Indigenous Peoples, families and communities.
It is also important to note that Western or colonial definitions of homelessness don’t always fit with the particular histories and current experiences of Indigenous Peoples. As such, Indigenous ‘homelessness’ is increasingly being referred to as ‘houselessness’. For Indigenous Peoples, “homelessness” is not merely defined as lacking a physical structure to live in but rather understood through a broader cultural lens that includes severed connections to their homeland, water, language, culture, identities and community. Indigenous Peoples experiencing these kinds of homelessness/houselessness cannot culturally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically (re)connect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships; making it hard to find their way back home.