History of Indigenous housing framed by PhD study

Humanities, Graduate Studies

- Tara Sharpe

Olsen. Photo: NunnOther Photography.

The lack of adequate housing on reserves across Canada continues to spark news headlines across the country, including three years ago—then again this year—about the isolated community of the Attawapiskat First Nation, with media covering the meeting today between Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. But how were the foundations of the Indigenous housing crisis first laid and what role did successive federal governments play in this crisis?

These are questions PhD grad Sylvia Olsen can now help answer. Her study of the history of on-reserve housing in Canada examines for the first time the origins of the crisis and the persistent failures of the federal system over a span of 65 years.

Making poverty (from 1930 to 1996)

Olsen, drawing from government records (1930s to 1990s), found clear indicators from the past about the persistence of the Indigenous housing crisis and the continued provision of substandard dwellings by the Canadian government. By delving into reams of paperwork associated with the practices and policies of the former Indian Department (now known as the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs), she painstakingly uncovered how the government housing programs created and perpetuated the housing conditions on reserve. She thinks that, to the best of her knowledge, no other historian has done this kind of work before in Canada, nor have any Canadian anthropologists or political scientists.

“My research and focus are on the locus of control and on the decision makers,” Olsen says. “It’s not a good story. But we need to understand it.”

Misinformed perceptions built from impressions of on-reserve housing

An important aspect of her research reveals misinformed associations made by non-Indigenous Canadians between impressions of poor conditions on reserves and perceptions about the personal characteristics of those who live there.  “That connection we make is well-studied,” says Olsen, “that we imagine people as reflecting the houses they live in.”

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Olsen adds, “’First our houses are made. Then our houses make us.’” Her dissertation, Making Poverty: A History of On-Reserve Housing Programs, 1930-1996, looks at “the historical story behind the housing system that has utterly failed people on Canada’s First Nations.”

“This isn’t the story of the people who live in the houses,” she says. “It’s about how the housing delivery systems were designed and run. This topic has been a disgrace to our country.”

Her study frames the impacts of Canada’s two “very separate” housing systems—mainstream and on-reserve. “People form their opinions based on what they see in the news but if people don’t understand the difference in how these systems operate, they are likely to come up with a totally uninformed story,” she emphasizes. For example, the mainstream system allows for non-reserve Canadians to able to access financing for their homes and to engage in individual wealth creation in a favourable housing market; the other is set up entirely differently, Olsen points out (for instance, in the past money couldn’t even be borrowed to purchase a new home).

Restoring and re-storying history

Olsen recognizes her doctoral study is not designed to provide solutions to the housing crisis. It is however the first examination of the history and delivery of government housing programs, and she hopes one outcome of her research will be a think tank focused on on-reserve housing. “I see it as part of the larger re-storying of First Nations history in Canada, [this recognition that the federal housing system has been] an active agent in creating poverty and making reserves poor.”

Olsen has spent more than 35 years living in Tsartlip First Nation near Victoria, where her children and grandchildren now live. She earned her BA in 1994 and MA in 1998 from UVic and is the winner of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for historical writing for Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater, an elaboration of her master’s thesis on the Coast Salish knitters. As well as being an author and public speaker, Olsen also teaches housing management at Vancouver Island University and works as a housing policy analyst.

Olsen defended her PhD in April under the supervision of history professor and department chair John Lutz. On June 16, Olsen will receive her PhD at the UVic Spring 2016 convocation.

Read more about Olsen on her website (sylviaolsen.ca).


In this story

Keywords: Indigenous, history, convocation, graduate research

People: Sylvia Olsen

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