by Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – In the midst of extreme cold temperatures in Alberta, the City of Edmonton is dismantling encampments displacing homeless people, of which many are Indigenous. Eight per cent of Edmonton’s population identifies as Indigenous, while 58 per cent of people experiencing homelessness identify as Indigenous (City of Edmonton, 2016 Homeless Count). That is a gross overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Edmonton’s homeless population.
The removal of these encampments raises many concerns by social advocates about the violation of Indigenous rights, cultural displacement, and homelessness. The Coalition for Justice and Human Rights wants camp clearing to stop citywide if certain conditions are not met and have filed a lawsuit against the City.
The City’s policy is to remove every high risk camp with twenty or more structures. City crews must confirm that there is sufficient shelter capacity, notify city council of removal plans, and get approval from the deputy city manager of community services before proceeding. People living in the camps and social agencies are alerted about the teardown plans two days after a peace officer deems the site high risk.
Individuals who do not want to leave are being forcible removed by the police, who have the authority to use force. Encampment individual’s belongings, everything that they own, are being thrown away in the dump. Once evicted from these encampments, affected individuals must go wait in line for available shelter and/or treatment offered by various service organizations around Edmonton.
Shelters all have certain rules that must be followed. Some shelters are only open certain hours and can result in people being turned away if they attend late. Shelter availability is minimal and often not appropriate for all individuals, especially for those that have partners and/or pets. Some individuals fear that they may be assaulted at a shelter and do not want to stay there.
There are so many reasons why this City of Edmonton policy and the approach they are taking to homelessness are wrong. The forcible removal of Indigenous people from encampments causes continual trauma, on top of what has already happened in the past. Historically, Indigenous people in Canada have been subjected to years of colonialism, historical trauma, and systemic racism – all related to similar policies that focus on colonial approaches that make others conform to social norms.
Indigenous people continue to be forced to assimilate into western society today, with no new and innovative approaches that support a commitment to increased culturally appropriate social supports, long-term housing, and reconciliation so that treatment like this, no longer occurs.
It is important to recognize that Indigenous people lived nomadic lifestyles on these lands since time immemorial. Indigenous people had various cultural practices and knew how to live off the land, including during the harsh winter months. They were not deemed to be a risk to public safety. When settlers moved to Canada, they stopped Indigenous people from carrying on their traditional practices. For over a century, Indigenous children were removed from their families and homes and taken to residential schools, with the objective of isolating children from their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
All this harm done to Indigenous people has led to intergenerational trauma and huge disparities in healthcare, education, children’s services, housing, etc. During colonization, Indigenous people, families and communities became displaced and continue to struggle today to find their place again in society. Dismantling encampments and sending people to temporary shelters is not a long-term solution and is not addressing the root causes of homelessness. Indigenous people need compassion, humanity, strengthening, and empowerment through a variety of culturally appropriate supports.
The focus on the City policy is to respond in a strong way, in a short amount of time, to prevent high-risk camps from surfacing around the city. However, the City needs to respond in a stronger way to more quickly connect people with appropriate social and housing resources, in a short amount of time, to prevent homeless individuals from all this additional harm.
The City of Edmonton needs to put in place a longer-term plan to address homelessness, rather than addressing it from season to season. The City of Edmonton must take a more collaborative approach with governments, Indigenous leaders and communities to find culturally appropriate, creative and sustainable solutions that respects and revitalizes cultural values and prioritizes the well-being of Indigenous people.