In traditional Indigenous societies, there was no homelessness.

Opinion

In traditional Indigenous societies, there was no homelessness.

No one was left out of the feast, a place to sleep, or turned away from the lodge, unless they chose to be alone.

Even in our creation stories, when humans were placed on Earth, a loving and accepting Creation accepted, nurtured, and adopted them.

In fact, it’s a law in virtually every single Indigenous culture that everything — and everyone — has a rightful and respected place.

You can still see this principle in ceremony, in which all directions are acknowledged, room is made for those who disagree or think differently, and an acknowledgement is made of an "opposite" spirit whose only job is to break societal conventions, act inappropriately, and explore the opposite side of everything (sometimes called a "trickster").

Homelessness is an invention of Europeans, who brought private ownership, capital accumulation, and the idea that housing is not a human right but something you must "earn."

These were foreign concepts to people who viewed sharing as a law.

Later, European principles drove the insatiable hunger for land and resources that created Canada via the theft of Indigenous land and assimilative legacies of the Indian Act and residential schools.

Not coincidentally, this violence is precisely why so many Indigenous people are homeless today.

Indigenous cultural principles of inclusivity, community, and equality have always been threats to the principles Canada holds most dear.

So, it should come as no surprise that the cure for homelessness can be found in Indigenous cultures.

In the 2018 Street Health Survey by End Homelessness Winnipeg, for example, researchers concluded the solution to homelessness in Winnipeg is to "support inclusiveness and apply an Indigenous cultural lens throughout the work."

Makes sense, for the mere fact that 70 per cent of Winnipeg’s homeless are Indigenous.

So, if more Indigenous cultural content, programming, and initiatives are the solution, why does Siloam Mission — arguably Winnipeg’s most well-funded, supported, and expansive charitable organization that deals with homelessness — need to be convinced?

This is the question nearly a dozen current and former employees expressed in a letter to the Siloam Mission board of directors in November, pointing a finger at CEO Jim Bell for creating "a hostile and divisive working environment" and a "reluctance, refusal, and often outright denial" of "culturally appropriate programming."

In the letter, staff point out that Bell limited and denied Indigenous practices such as smudging, drumming, and the inclusion of Indigenous speakers in Siloam programming.

They also accused Bell of failing to establish an Indigenous advisory council, which was promised in a report to the Winnipeg Indigenous Accord in 2018, and failing to hire Indigenous staff after the mission’s Indigenous spiritual care worker resigned last summer.

This has resulted, the employees claim, in a "dismantling" of Indigenous initiatives at Siloam, which fails to serve the majority of its clients and fulfil grants obtained under the promise Siloam would provide Indigenous-specific programming.

A major problem is in Bell’s interpretation of Indigenous culture. In a private email to the board obtained by the Free Press, former Siloam Indigenous spiritual care worker Delvina Kejick wrote that Bell’s "evangelical Christian(ity) and his misinterpretation of traditional ways were a huge roadblock to true reconciliation ever occurring."

Now, a social media movement has started: "Not My Siloam" is calling for the organization to incorporate changes immediately and "better support Indigenous people experiencing homelessness."

I spoke to two members, former Siloam employees, on Wednesday.

One told me: "Everything Indigenous is brick-walled at Siloam. They check boxes when it comes to funding applications but then never do the work."

The other told me: "There is deep discrimination and fragility when it comes to servicing Indigenous peoples and people are fired and removed when they challenge or ask questions. Colonialism is alive and well."

I reached out to Bell and Siloam for a comment and was directed to the FAQ section on its website.

On it, Siloam states a "new spiritual care co-ordinator is starting later this month" and "Our Indigenous education committee is consulting with both knowledge keepers and Christian elders to make sure we can accommodate people who practise either traditional or Christian Indigenous practices."

This committee "has no Indigenous representation" but will "listen to Indigenous voices."

The FAQ also promises a forthcoming, to-be-published "cultural competency evaluation" for Siloam.

In case it’s not obvious by now, it’s clear that Indigenous principles of inclusivity, community, and equality don’t appear to be at Winnipeg’s pre-eminent and front-line Indigenous service organization.

I won’t even comment about the issue of exploitation with Christian conversion missions of vulnerable people.

At Siloam Mission, Indigenous peoples are welcome as clients, but not leaders.

A fixed place, in the corner, while others make decisions for them.

I wonder where I’ve heard this before.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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