You can't imagine how thankful and honoured I am to be here, primarily because, as Bonnie was saying, I experienced childhood and youth violence and abuse. I was a runaway and was homeless. I hitchhiked up to the Northwest Territories, and because the regular sheltering system couldn't respond to my needs and my behaviour, I ended up establishing a shelter for women who are homeless, which I ran for 30 years.
Based on my activism and my work in that field, I received the Order of Canada in 2009, and in 2012, I received Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee Medal. I raise that because it was an incredibly surreal experience knowing that I went from sleeping and hiding in bushes to that event. It felt kind of weird, similar to how I feel here. I hope that what I have to say actually matters and makes a difference because that's what I try to do.
I thought I would begin by talking about the recommendations that I have in case I don't get to those. I have been accused of not having solutions and looking toward the problem.
I have three recommendations. One is that Women's Shelters Canada, which purports to be the voice of women accessing sheltering services and transitional housing services in Canada, remove exclusionary criteria that prohibits their membership from including women-run shelters for women who are homeless. I'll get more into why they have that criteria that doesn't include us because we're homeless women.
The other recommendation that I have is that Women's Shelters Canada and their member agencies across the country change their approach from a sort of continuum of services that requires huge engagement from participants.... Actually, they're renters. People who pay rent have to sign up to participate in programs, whether they're good or not, whether they like them or not. I want Women's Shelters Canada to take a human rights approach to housing, like what you find in the housing first program.
The other things I'm hoping to do are to apply a human rights model to sheltering and transitional housing services for women, support the development of a gender-specific housing-first model, and provide tenants in transitional housing.... In our territory, they pay up to $1,700 a month for rent, and they're not afforded the same protections as any other tenant. That's true across the country. The message out there is that all of these people have problems and we're taking care of those problems, so they don't need protection from us. We need protection from them.
I'm here to tell you that's actually not true. Ontario declared women living in transitional housing as one of the most vulnerable groups of people. Again, I'll try to describe what those are.
Finally, I am recommending that the system develop and implement a culturally sound competency-based staff training curriculum specific to the needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis women, involving women with lived experience of homelessness.
Those are my three recommendations, and I'll move to why I'm asking for those things.
I'm asking for those things because not only am I a woman with lived experience, but I also ran a shelter for 25 years in the north. The Centre for Northern Families was established kind of by accident or by default because the other service provider who had this continuum of service model kicked a woman out because she had a disability. They said that she posed a danger to herself and other people. She was wandering on the street and in trouble, and she came to our resource centre and said, “I've no place to go.” We took her in. Was she a risk to herself? Yeah, she was a risk to herself, but the risk to herself was greater on the street at 40-below, unprotected and vulnerable.
The woman slept on the couch in the centre, and over time many other women came who couldn't access the sheltering and transitional housing services run by, again, this mainstream service that deliberately opted not to follow a human rights model. The women were primarily first nations, Inuit and Métis, and they were struggling with the intergenerational impacts of colonization, racism, the effects of residential schools and the foster care system, and ongoing community and family violence.
We were sort of mentors to each other because we were very similar. Having said that, I position myself as a settler and as not experiencing the same level of racism and discrimination as indigenous women or women of colour. I want to make that clear.
Their needs were complex, and they used substances to cope. We took a really different approach, mostly because I was more of a peer than a worker, and, thank, God, they didn't train the humanity out of me.
We also had a resource centre that was rooted already in principles of inclusion, tolerance and peaceful co-existence, where individuals were valued no matter what, and where people were respected and supported to achieve self-determination. That was the statement of our principles, so that's how we operated. It just made a different environment—an inclusive environment—and we ended up with all the people that the community and service providers considered problem people.
The women stayed on their own during the evening. All the staff were around, but those women took care of themselves. They stayed on their own. They did really well, because they also had great qualities. They're very caring. They have a real spiritual connection. They knew they had responsibilities, so they stayed on their own.
We met with them during the day, and we resolved conflicts through kind of a circle process, which is common in indigenous communities. When the women were not able to act in a respectful way, they were required to leave the premises for very short periods of time. They were never banned, never punished, and they were always able to come back once they could again have some composure.
This low-barrier housing option became in such demand that the Government of Northwest Territories funded the program and gave us a big building. It was funded for 16 beds, but 30 women lived there. Nobody else would serve a lot of the women who lived there, including the hospital, the correctional system, the other shelters, the medical community, counselling and community care. Nobody would go near these women except for us, because we love them actually.