Indigenous communities: Trudeau, keep your promises

Danny Toolooktook is full of hope as he smokes a cigarette on the doorstep of an indigenous drop-in centre that he credits with keeping him off the streets, sober, and out of jail.

“I was homeless, I was drinking, I was doing everything, and if it wasn’t for these people,” says the Ottawa resident, pointing through the window to a group gathered around a small wooden table, “I wouldn’t have a house, I wouldn’t be going back to school.”

The Shawenjeagamik Drop-in Centre is located just two kilometres from Parliament Hill, where the new Liberal government has made big promises for indigenous people.

Toolooktook hopes some money trickles down to his home away from home – a centre that is on its deathbed as a result of federal funding cuts earlier this year. It is Ottawa’s only indigenous drop-in centre.

The Inuit man says he is certain he would be back in jail if the centre were forced to close.  Instead, he is about to begin a 16-week training program intended to help indigenous persons find work in the culinary service industry.

“There’s a lot of people who know who I am,” said Toolooktook. “They know I’m an ex-con.” But he says that is not who he is. “It’s just what I did.”

The Rideau Street centre, which provides vital resources to Ottawa’s most vulnerable and under-serviced communities, including indigenous persons who are either homeless or receive some form of social assistance, has enough private funding to survive until the end of March.

“Our funding was cut to zero,” said Carrie Diabo, director of programming and the woman responsible for keeping the place running, with the help of private donations and limited federal funds diverted from another outreach program.

According to Diabo, the decision to cut the funding was made because the government said that such centres – those providing the homeless and impoverished with meals, clothing and other vital services – don’t “meet the criteria” of the government’s new Housing First initiative – a strategy aimed at ending homelessness “as rapidly as possible” by moving the chronically homeless from emergency shelters into more permanent forms of housing.

Unfortunately, says Diabo, while providing permanent housing is one important aspect in the battle against chronic and intermittent homelessness, it is by no means the only solution.  She says it does nothing to address the issues of prolonged poverty and isolation that many indigenous persons continue to face once off the streets.

“They can have their own place,” said Diabo. “But I mean, what do they do after that?  Especially if you’ve got somebody that’s been living in the shelter for 17 years.”

Between 60 and 100 people a day access services through the centre, which include community outreach programs, social work, legal services, laundry, showers, computer training, resume preparation, as well as breakfast and lunch from Monday to Friday.

Before funding was cut, the centre opened seven days a week, and served three meals a day.  Now it is only open five days a week and has been forced to reduce the total number of meals provided by over 50 per cent.

The hopes for the centre’s future come at a time when indigenous people across the country are watching and waiting for the Trudeau government to follow through on its election promises.

Indigenous leaders speak

Trudeau’s victory and the prominent inclusion of indigenous cultural traditions at the swearing-in ceremony of Canada’s new cabinet – not to mention the appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould as the first indigenous justice minister – have been heralded as huge victories.

“It is a real act of courage in Canada to do something like that,” said John Medicine Horse Kelly, an award-winning photographer and photo journalism professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

When asked what impact he believed the appointment of Wilson-Raybould might have upon the lives of indigenous peoples, Kelly replied, “Let’s just say that there’s a real chance justice will be more just – for once.” It’s something Kelly admits has been sadly missing for indigenous persons in North America for over 500 years.

Photos courtesy of Prof. John Medicine Horse Kelly from Brian Hill on Vimeo.

According to Dawn Harvard, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the new government must be held to account.

“Yes, we’ve got our inquiry,” said Harvard. “But that does not mean we can sit back and allow the government to say, ‘Well, we gave you an inquiry, we’ve done our job,’ we need to keep the pressure up, and hold their feet to the fire.”

Both Kelly and Harvard express hope and optimism for the future, but they remain reluctant to declare any victory for indigenous peoples in Canada until the government honours its treaty commitments and delivers a sincere apology – not just in words, but in action.

It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry,” said Harvard. “As any 5-year-old kid can tell you, the discrimination needs to stop.”

Canadians need to learn their own history, said Harvard, and to “let go of the stereotypes, and the prejudice.”

For Kelly, this means acknowledging that we are all here to stay, and that we can, “respect the differences and sovereignty of our peoples, and live together and work together as one nation, finally.”

Back at Shawenjeagamik, Toolooktook is excited about starting a new job-training program that he found out about through the centre.

Organized by Aboriginal Experiences, this federally funded program includes a $200 a week living allowance, a free bus pass, and a four-week placement designed to allow students to utilize their newfound skills in the workplace.

“I got a second or a third chance back to actually do something I love,” says Toolooktook. He checks his wrist to see whether it is time to head out for the first day.”

Author: Brian Hill

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