As the fall weather sets in across our communities it is a good time to turn our focus to ensuring everyone in our communities has access to safe, affordable housing as we brace for the cold weather ahead.
Ontario is estimated to have a shortage of approximately 22,000 deeply affordable urban and rural Indigenous community housing units.[i] The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) is dedicated to working with partners to deliver housing solutions in communities across Ontario that close that deficit and deliver tangible reconciliation commitments. But often, these innovative housing solutions face pushback and are labeled as controversial, often because of stereotypes and subconscious bias against Indigenous people that exist in many communities.
In Thunder Bay, the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre (TBIFC) recently achieved an incredible victory. In partnership with the Ontario Native Women’s Association, the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, they have successfully developed The Indigenous Youth Transition Housing Initiative.
The most recent homelessness point-in-time count statistics indicate that 68% of people experiencing homelessness in Thunder Bay identify as Indigenous.
The Indigenous Youth Transitional Housing initiative was initially slated for a development start date of May 2021 to ensure occupancy in September 2022. At the time of writing, the initiative has endured delays caused by organized community backlash, appeals to municipal decision-making on the initiative, and intense media scrutiny.[ii], [iii] Anti-Indigenous racism played a significant role in driving these procedural delays.
These successive interruptions to the initiative caused available operational funding to evaporate[iv] and left Indigenous youth who could have been served by the initiative vulnerable during successive pandemic winters in Thunder Bay.
In the Spring of 2023, the four partners came together for a traditional ceremony in preparation for their jointly developed Indigenous Youth Transitional Housing Initiative to be built on Junot Avenue in Thunder Bay. Following this hopeful ceremony, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing hosted an announcement in August to explain the new and vital role of the initiative in Thunder Bay.
After a significant uphill battle undertaken by the Indigenous community of Thunder Bay, shovels will be in the ground this fall. A remarkable and important win in the face of the housing crisis. However, following multiple years of struggle, the media still reports a housing win like this as controversial.[v]
To help municipalities identify, understand and successfully overcome this pervasive form of discrimination, the Ontario Human Rights Commission has published In the Zone: Housing, human rights and municipal planning, which concisely explains the human rights responsibilities of municipalities in housing and provides helpful tips and best practices for creating discrimination-free processes including community meetings.
Indigenous communities have the right to develop housing that addresses community need, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Articles 21 and 23.[vi]
The project in Thunder Bay is one of many housing initiatives currently being led by Friendship Centres across the province. Friendship Centres are at the forefront, leading the way on many solutions to the housing crisis.
The OFIFC regularly conducts housing needs assessments in urban Indigenous communities across Ontario. Many Friendship Centres stress that simply connecting an individual with housing and leaving them without proper supports is not a sustainable approach to Indigenous housing.
Friendship Centres have also shared that housing is most successful when it integrates life skills programming, access to culture, and is connected to urban Indigenous community infrastructure. Housing can and should be designed and built considering the community's needs – including communal gathering space, access to land, and opportunities for Indigenous Knowledge transfer.
Centres have identified the need for senior housing in their communities as a priority as well. Many seniors live alone in multi-unit homes that their families have moved out of. In many cases, seniors are experiencing isolation when they could be living in dedicated, culturally relevant, Indigenous seniors housing. Housing stock once occupied by seniors could then be re-distributed to young families who cannot find adequate housing.
Additionally, housing that can support family reunification has been identified across Friendship Centres. If a family or a parent is involved with child welfare and has their children apprehended – their housing can often be a complicating factor in dealing with child welfare. Without adequate housing, families can face barriers to reunification.
Some Friendship Centres, like the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre, have already established dedicated temporary housing in their community to facilitate family reunification and support families to transition to more permanent housing.
Urban Indigenous communities, like Thunder Bay, have a right to develop housing solutions to meet the needs of their community members. Thunder Bay’s new transitional housing will have a profound, lasting impact on young Indigenous people's lives as they transition into adulthood. Connections to supportive culture-based programming and resources will strengthen social protective factors, including young people’s relationship to culture, bolstering self-esteem, and linkages to the labour market.
It's important to recognize and replicate successful projects like this one across the province. Achieving true reconciliation requires a joint effort from stakeholders, community members, and government at all levels. Let's work together to ensure that every person in our community is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
[i] Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. (2020). Urban and Rural Indigenous Housing Plan for Ontario. P. 6
[ii] CBC News Thunder Bay. (2021). ‘Junot Avenue transitional housing project in Thunder Bay on hold after zoning delayed.’ Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/thunder-bay-junot-transitional-housing-1.6214937
[iii] CBC News Thunder Bay. (2020). ‘Junot transitional housing project upheld by provincial planning tribunal.’ Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/junot-transitional-housing-appeal-1.5511169
[iv] CBC News Thunder Bay. (2021). ‘Junot Avenue transitional housing project in Thunder Bay on hold after zoning delayed.’ Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/thunder-bay-junot-transitional-housing-1.6214937
[v] TBNewswatch. (2023). ‘VIDEO: A controversial project on Junot Avenue is moving ahead.’ https://www.tbnewswatch.com/local-news/video-a-controversial-project-on-junot-avenue-is-moving-ahead-7330271
[vi] United Nations. (2007). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf