For Mary Ellen Simon, Indigenous Peoples’ access to safe, affordable housing is an urgent need that goes far beyond economics.
“Having a place of rest is important,” says the Housing Programs Director at the Niagara Regional Native Centre. “People are still healing; they are just starting to be allowed to learn their own history.
“Our housing is a part of the Niagara ecosystem,” she says. “We can be at peace and rest and be able to sit with our elders, teachers and knowledge keepers, and we learn about things.”
Yet, in the face of this great need, Indigenous Peoples encounter many challenges as they seek housing for themselves and their families, says Simon.
To address the problem, Simon invited Brock Assistant Professors of Political Science Joanne Heritz and her colleague Liam Midzain-Gobin to attend a meeting of the Niagara Indigenous Community Advisory Board.
“They came to us and just listened,” Simon recalls. “They didn’t pre-plan what they wanted to do, or what their interests and ideas were; they didn’t come with a pre-formed agenda.”
After much discussion, the group decided research on housing challenges and potential solutions would be most helpful. To support this work, Midzain-Gobin and Heritz applied for, and received, a Brock University Indigenous Research Grant.
Midzain-Gobin, Heritz and their research assistant Sierra Kiers-Vander Veen partnered with Simon and other members of the Niagara Regional Native Centre on the project “Indigenous Affordable Housing in Niagara.”
“The impetus for this comes out of a recognition that Indigenous communities and Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by the affordability crisis in housing,” says Midzain-Gobin, adding that “more work needs to be done to engage Indigenous communities” in wider Niagara Region housing and homeless initiatives.
He refers to the Niagara’s Housing and Homelessness Action Plan’s Five-Year Review, which found that in 2018, Indigenous Peoples accounted for 24.3 per cent of those without a home despite comprising only 2.8 per cent of Niagara Region’s population.
In the year since they received the grant, the group has formed the Indigenous Housing Advisory Circle (IHAC) consisting of representatives from the Fort Erie Native Friendship Centre, Ganawageh & Ohsto:Seri Urban Homes Inc., Niagara Region Métis Council, Niagara Chapter Native Women, and Niagara Regional Native Centre.
Through a number of sharing circles and meetings, the IHAC has gathered housing experiences from the Indigenous community and discussed subjects ranging from policy gaps in housing, to income levels, to building codes, regional land development policies and decision-making processes in the housing system, among other things.
This and other information were compiled into a report and presented to the IHAC last December.
The next step is for the group to create an Indigenous Vision for Housing in Niagara document, which will discuss how to build safe, affordable and culturally appropriate homes in Niagara from an Indigenous sovereignty perspective.
The document responds to two crises facing Indigenous Peoples in Niagara region: the lack of safe and affordable housing, and colonization, says Heritz.
She says the project will be based on storytelling and Indigenous philosophies and perspectives and will include a literature review and original research employing document and policy analysis, photovoice, interviews and sharing circles with the Indigenous community in the Niagara region.
Earlier this year, one initiative that sprang from IHAC discussions was an “Indigenous Housing Re-storying in Niagara” experiential education project offered in two Brock University Political Science courses.
Students developed policy briefs and recommendations on various local housing challenges after hearing from several Indigenous speakers. The project’s community event held in April involved student policy presentations and roundtable discussions with members of Indigenous communities and the regional government.
Heritz credits the Indigenous Research Grant with kick-starting an effective, relevant research process.
“This grant was really helpful in working with Indigenous representatives to determine how they want to move forward on this project,” says Heritz. “It planted the seed for amplifying their voice in securing housing on their terms.”