Five days a week, I walk through bleak alleys behind the hustle, bustle and yelling along Hastings Street on the city’s Downtown Eastside.
Midway down one alley, I pass the homeless camp that sprang up near Hastings and Carrall Streets last spring. As I peer through the grey chainlink fence at the figures in tents, I notice that at times up to half of the camp’s residents are Indigenous people.
I don’t know how they ended up in this place so far from their home First Nations. I only know that they are here, nowhere to go yesterday or today and who knows about tomorrow.
It was the same in 2014 when a homeless camp sprung up at Oppenheimer Park before being cleared out by police under court order. More than half that camp’s residents were Indigenous people.
What struck me then and still resonates with me now is the reticence from provincial and federal Indigenous leadership about this issue. The camps’ residents are surely their most vulnerable and marginalized citizens. They needed a strong voice to advocate for them, and the influence of an agency to lobby municipally, provincially and federally.
Indigenous leaders were quick to comment about natural resource issues, LNG and economic development. Yet not a word was spoken about the homeless camps, not even when police turfed Indigenous residents out of Oppenheimer into the street with nowhere to go in 2014.
But last week, this issue really hit home with me.
Just blocks away from the homeless camp on Hastings Street, B.C. First Nations chiefs were in town meeting with B.C. Premier Christy Clark at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Only one tribal official, Ucluelet First Nation Legislature President Les Dorion, made his way to the camp to look for any of his people.
Housing crises don’t just happen on-reserve. There, people at least have extended family and tribe resources to turn to in extreme situations. Here, an extreme situation can lead to a prolonged stay in a homeless camp.
In Vancouver, there are Indigenous housing societies with housing projects for Indigenous people. But they are full to capacity and have waiting lists years long.
To be fair to on-reserve Indigenous leaders, they’re more concerned with matters closer to their First Nations than they are with issues miles away in cities. However, it’s also worth noting that federal funding flows to on-reserve leadership based on their own estimates of population, typically including off-reserve residents, yet that money seldom reaches Indigenous people living in the city. Urban Indigenous services from health care to education keep getting cut back.
Something is happening to Indigenous populations, and a clue to what is contained within historical census data.
In 2006, Statistics Canada noted that 60 per cent of Indigenous people lived away from their First Nations and in urban areas.
In 2001, there were 36,855 Indigenous people living in Vancouver compared to 31,140 in 1996. In 2011, the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study noted that in 2006, more than 40,000 Indigenous people called Vancouver home.
Those numbers represent only self-identified indigenous people who could be counted; the urban indigenous population is probably far greater than that.
There is a diaspora of Indigenous people leaving their First Nations and coming to cities like Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops and Prince George. This isn’t news, but the growing trend is.
Indigenous people leave their First Nations for reasons not unlike those of people who come here from other countries — seeking a better life, employment, education and opportunity.
Not every Indigenous person who arrives in Vancouver to make a new life ends up in a homeless camp or in dire straits. Many engage themselves in their new surroundings, work hard and go on to live productive lives.
But living in the city isn’t without challenges, as Indigenous people face struggles that range from safe affordable housing to public education as well as employment and health issues.
Imploring on-reserve Indigenous leaders to speak for their urban people is one thing.
But maybe urban Indigenous people need to find leaders among themselves to create an Indigenous agency whose sole purpose is political advocacy.
The Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council and City of Vancouver’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory Committee advocate when they can, and they are to be commended for their efforts. But in reality, they are besieged trying to keep programs running with too much to do and too few resources to do it with, and can only afford to advocate off the sides of their desks.
There is the non-profit Indigenous group ALIVE, but even its director Scott Clark says that it was never meant to serve in a political advocacy role, but does so now out of sheer necessity.
Instead, what’s needed is an agency whose sole purpose and mandate is political advocacy, not just in Vancouver, but in urban centres across the province. There hasn’t been one since the former United Native Nations, which collapsed after bitter internecine infighting.
Such an agency would do what on-reserve Indigenous leadership can’t, namely advocate with federal, provincial and municipal officials about urban Indigenous issues. More importantly, it would be able to influence policy making before policy is enacted.
And maybe it would be a voice for people such as those living in the homeless camp on Hastings Street. They are strong, resourceful and independent survivors who can take care of themselves. Being neglected forges this kind of grit.
Maybe that grit has created a leader among them who will take up this cause.
Wawmeesh Hamilton is an award-winning journalist and photographer who lives in Vancouver. He has won three B.C.-Yukon Community Newspaper Association awards and three Canadian Community Newspaper Association awards, each for writing and photography. He and colleague Peter Mothe won a Canadian Online Publishing Award in 2015. Hamilton’s work has been published with CBC, The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, Metro and The Tyee. Hamilton graduated with an MA from the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in 2016. His thesis documented the banishment and reintegration of Indigenous sex offenders from their communities. Hamilton is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.