North·First Person

I grew up in Northern public housing. The system does not work for Indigenous people

Living on the land in the N.W.T. gave my grandmother strength, purpose, belonging, and a sense of empowerment — something that public housing is badly missing, writes Katłįà Lafferty.

I believe it's time for Indigenous-led solutions to public housing in the North

A smiling woman sits at a picnic table with her toddler son on her lap.
Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty of the N.W.T., with her son in Edmonton. (Submitted by Katłįà Lafferty)

This First Person column is written by Katłįà Lafferty of Yellowknife. Read more about CBC North First Person columns here. 

I recently went to Geneva where I attended the United Nations 90th session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. I was there to express concerns over Canada's routine placement of children in inadequate public housing units.

My family has lived in public housing in the N.W.T. for three generations now. For us, public housing has become an intergenerational trap. 

As a child, we moved around a lot. In a matter of just a few years I lived in three separate public housing units in Yellowknife's Sissons Court. Then when I was a teenager I lived with my grandmother in a fourplex behind the bowling alley in downtown Yellowknife. 

My grandmother made ends meet by selling traditional clothing under the table. My papa did not live with us but he helped contribute through his bootlegging business. Their income was not considered legitimate, but if they were to work "real" jobs, rent would have gone up significantly for a unit not worth the high cost of living. 

This is an example of how the public housing system perpetuates crime — it's sometimes more affordable to make a living illegally rather than work a full time job for minimum wage while paying a stranger to watch your children.

When I had my first son, I lived in a downtown Yellowknife fourplex identical to the one I once lived in with my grandmother. But I was in an unhealthy relationship and wanted more for myself and my son. We moved to Edmonton so I could get a post-secondary education.

That meant giving up my northern residency and losing my place in a long public housing waitlist. That's something northerners are routinely forced to do in pursuit of higher education — even if they want to study inside the territory, as documented in a recent external review of programming at Aurora College.

A young girl sits with her back to the camera, in front of an art easel in the corner of a room.
Lafferty's daughter in their Victoria apartment, when Lafferty left the N.W.T. for law school. (Submitted by Katłįà Lafferty)

As I write, I am staying in a low-income housing unit with my mother in her home community of N'Dilo. I'm here for the summer to work and have nowhere to truly call home because once again I left the North to continue my post-secondary education. 

It doesn't matter that my matrilineal bloodline runs deep in the North — government-run public housing dispossesses Indigenous people of their land. 

Then there are the myriad public housing policies that lack cultural sensitivity, such as the prohibition on pets (even therapy dogs), the prohibition on home-based businesses, the demeaning mandatory declaration of monthly income through the review of banking statements and tax returns, and the focus on overcrowding.

In my opinion, "overcrowding" is really just a lack of consideration by the government to incorporate Indigenous cultural systems into planning and architecture. Growing up with my grandmother we always had a lot of visitors but if anyone were to visit for an extended period of time it would be reported to the housing authority. Such policies prevent tenants from making their own decisions, even when it comes to helping extended relatives who may need a place to stay. 

Indigenous peoples should have more authority to make decisions when it comes to housing in their communities, by combining culturally appropriate wraparound services and homeownership in the form of "Land Back": meeting Canada's promises of Truth and Reconciliation, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and the national Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report which mentions the need for housing for safety and security nearly 400 times.

Even though the federal government and the territorial housing corporation have begun to partner with some Indigenous groups, Housing NWT and the federal bodies that fund housing in the territory still very much control the agenda. Indigenous-led housing, with Indigenous people in charge of our own inherent sovereignty as we were before colonization, would mean a loss of control by these organizations. That's a liberty my grandmother once knew well. Had there been Indigenous-led housing all along, my family would be living off-grid and rent-free.

The front entrance of an apartment building with Fort Gary written above the doorway.
The Fort Gary apartment building in Yellowknife, where Lafferty once lived with her grandmother, mother and auntie. (Submitted by Katłįà Lafferty )

My grandmother used to tell me what her life was like growing up on the land as a child without running water and electricity in a time when no one claimed ownership. The land was regarded as communal, to be respected and shared. Now it is bought and sold, divided and conquered. 

It was hard work living on the land, but she didn't complain. Living on the land gave her strength, purpose, belonging, and a sense of empowerment — something that public housing is badly missing. 

Home is where the heart is, they say. It is where life begins, and should be a place of safety, love, health, security, happiness, respect and kinship. But here in the North, it is difficult for many Indigenous people to have a sense of belonging because of past wrongs.

It shouldn't have required a trip to the other side of the world and the U.N. to make it known how important it is for a child to have a healthy home. Hopefully this type of advocacy will spark change so that families in Northern public housing can find a place to truly call home.

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Katłįà Lafferty is the granddaughter of Alice Lafferty and Edward Lessard. She is the co-chair of the National Indigenous Feminist Housing Working Group with Keepers of the Circle and will be releasing her third book, This House is Not a Home, this fall with Fernwood Publishing.