Jesse Thistle traces the homelessness of Indigenous Canadians back — way, way back.

"Because it started there," said Thistle, a Métis-Cree PhD student from Saskatchewan and the keynote speaker at a gathering Wednesday to develop a strategy to reduce homelessness among Indigenous Edmontonians.

"When you move to someone's house or someone's land and you kick them out, they're homeless."

But Thistle, a Trudeau Vanier scholar with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, who was once addicted to crack while sleeping in stairwells and shelters, said the definition of Indigenous homelessness is far different from the western notion of what it means to be without a home.

He sees it as a disconnection from one's identity, ancestors, language, culture and land fanned by government policy over time.

This disconnection, said Thistle, has led to "the current context that we see out in the streets."

Within that understanding lies answers, Thistle said.

Any solution requires a holistic approach that includes language revitalization and bringing investment for infrastructure, health and education in Indigenous communities to the same level as non-Indigenous.

'When you move to someone's house or someone's land and you kick them out, they're homeless.'
- PhD student Jesse Thistle

He said governments also need to honour treaties, and provide learning opportunities for Indigenous Canadians to truly understand the personal impact of historical wrongs and intergenerational trauma "so real healing can take place."

While overall homeless numbers in Edmonton are shrinking, last November's annual count revealed just how far the city still has to go when it comes to housing Indigenous people.

Indigenous people represent 48 per cent of the city's overall homeless count but only 5.4 per cent of the population.

'Racism remains a real concern'

It's within that context that a number of organizations gathered Wednesday to create a strategy.

Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust Edmonton, which organized the event, said the plan must address a number of barriers including facilitating relationships between tenants and landlords, and racism.

"Racism remains a real concern for Indigenous community members and we've heard that over and over again in the consultations that we've been having," she said.

However, said McGee, another barrier — the long-awaited and much-needed increase to federal funding for subsidized housing — appears to be coming down.

"The fact that in (the federal government's) strategy they have identified that there are specific Indigenous housing needs that they will want to address, I think it's really important for us as a community to respond to that with some kind of plan, with a way to mobilize things when those funds become available," she said.

Thistle's own story, which he shared Wednesday, affirms the holistic approach he espouses as a way to end homelessness.

Separated from his family and heritage at just three years old, the trauma and feeling of being unanchored set Thistle on a destructive path in his teens involving drugs, crime and eventually living on the streets.

It wasn't until his early 30s that Thistle looked in the mirror and realized if he didn't change he would die.

Thistle checked into a recovery program but it was his academic pursuits around historical intergenerational trauma that led to understanding of his own personal circumstances, as well as forgiveness and ultimately healing.

"So I want to repeat that process with many other Indigenous people because I know it can work because it worked with me," Thistle said.