Published on June 22, 2021 by Luc Rinaldi for CPA Canada
In late 2015, as temperatures crept below freezing, a chief from a First Nations community asked the town’s mayor, Doug Lawrance, whether he could house two of its members who had moved to Sioux Lookout but had nowhere to stay. Lawrance called a handful of local housing agencies, but none had room; they were already struggling to find beds for dozens of people, most of them Indigenous. “There were just no solutions,” Lawrance said at the time. So he wrote to the provincial ministry responsible for housing, pleading for help. “The need is incredible.”
Sioux Lookout is a microcosm of the housing crisis facing Indigenous people across the country. Adequate housing is essential for stability, and yet, despite accounting for only 4.9 per cent of the population, Indigenous people are disproportionately represented among Canada’s unhoused, and they’re more likely to live in precarious housing. Inadequate housing is often at the root of their over-representation in foster care and prison, and housing is mentioned nearly 300 times in the final report prepared by the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Indigenous people are also more likely to be unemployed; it’s difficult to find a job when you live in your car. “If you don’t have your foundational needs met—one of them being shelter—nothing else can really thrive,” says Margaret Pfoh, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, an umbrella organization of Indigenous housing and service providers in B.C. “Without housing, how can we focus on education, on health, on reuniting families?”
In response to Lawrance’s letter and similar requests for help from the social housing agency in the area, Justin Marchand flew to Sioux Lookout in 2016. At the time, Marchand, a CPA, was the director of operations for Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS), a non-profit based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., that provides shelter, affordable rentals, home-ownership programs and support services to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It’s Ontario’s largest Indigenous housing provider. “If somebody comes through the door and needs help, we help them,” he says.