The Humans in the Housing Crisis

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Since 1876, the Federal Government has been responsible for housing on Indian reserves. In 2016, 27.4% of people on reserves lived in over-crowded housing[1] and 24.2% of First Nations people lived in a dwelling that was in need of major repairs.[2]

There are several contributing factors to these numbers. Firstly, many reserves are in northern isolated regions, which makes for shorter building seasons and costlier materials. Additionally, Indigenous people are also the fastest growing population in Canada and the available housing has not kept up. Furthermore, housing management can be run by people who are not qualified or have too many competing interests to adequately address the house repairs that are needed. However, one major factor is the consistency in which the Federal Government provides inadequate funding for housing and has ignored this issue for generations.

As high as these numbers may seem, they do not fully capture what the housing crisis looks like for those living in it. What those numbers do not provide is a visual of children sleeping on mattresses in living rooms. It does not paint a picture of twelve people living in a three-bedroom house so that people have to take shifts to sleep. It does not show young families waiting years just to have a place of their own. Nor do the stats really show what the inside of a home in need of major repairs looks like, whether that be leaking pipes, mold, holes in the wall or broken appliances.

The housing crisis has detrimental effects in so many areas. Children facing overcrowding have nowhere to complete their homework. Domestic violence victims have no where safe to go. A lack of privacy can lead to mental illnesses like depression. It also acts as a barrier for those looking to recover from their addictions who have no choice but to live with those who are still consuming. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 which can be spread more easily through overcrowded housing, also pose a serious threat to communities

During my internship with the Department of Justice and Correctional Service (DOJCS) of the Cree Nation, I was exposed to some particular ways in which overcrowding affects the justice system. One current challenge for the Cree Nation is that formerly incarcerated people as well as people who have experienced homelessness and who want to come back and integrate into their community have nowhere to go.

If their families do not want them in the home or there is no room in the home, these individuals have no opportunity to rejoin their community. Moreover, because of overcrowding, there are no alternatives—they cannot simply find another place to live. This problem compounds other issues such as formerly incarcerated people are less likely to follow their probation plan when they are far away from their community and do not have appropriate cultural programming or proper support.

To address this issue, the DOJCS has introduced the Tiny Homes Community Project. To start, three of the nine Cree communities will provide ten Tiny Homes for formerly incarcerated people to stay in while they look for more long-term housing. As Tiny Home tenants, they will receive support from Elders and mental health professionals. Each tenant is also required to participate in programming that will help them become a healthy, contributing member of the community.

My role in this project was to work in a team to draft the rights, responsibilities and protocols for the clients of these Tiny Homes. Again, the housing shortage posed several challenges. The Tiny Homes are meant to serve as transitional housing so the residents can integrate into the community. However, many people in the Cree Nation have to wait several years to be given access to a home of their own. This must be balanced with the high demand for the program, so the Tiny Homes cannot be occupied by the same clients for years. Another issue to consider is the process of expelling someone from the program, which may be necessary when the safety of the staff or other tenants is at risk. The reality is the expelled individual will have very few options on where to go; in some cases, they will have nowhere to go.

Overall, there are so many barriers caused by the housing crisis. It affects health, education, child development, rehabilitation, individual safety, familial relationships and overall community building. I know the Tiny Homes is a great program and will help many people reconnect with their community. Unfortunately, I also know that the housing crisis will continue to limit the number of people it serves and impacts its true potential.

[1] “The housing conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada” (25 October 2017) online:  < > []

[2] Ibid.

Experiencing Cree Culture at a Distance

Gemma DingwallBy Gemma Dingwall

Like all interns participating in McGill’s Human Rights Internship program in 2020, what I was expecting my internship to look like this summer is certainly quite different from the reality.

This summer I am working remotely for the Department of Justice and Correctional Services of the Cree Nation. Prior to the restrictions imposed on people entering the region due to COVID-19, the plan was for me to complete my internship in one of the communities in the region. Although my work and assignments were adapted to remote work, there is one major component missing from my internship: the ability to learn and experience the Cree culture as well as the northern lifestyle. So I decided I had to do the next best thing: find ways to experience Cree culture here in Montreal.

The following is a proposed weekend itinerary of how one can learn about the way of life in the Cree Nation. I hope you join me in using some of these resources to learn more about the region.

Photo of Cree film maker Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond, originally from Waskaganish, has directed many documentary films including, Reel Injun, The Last Explorer, One More River, Heavy Metal: A Mining Disaster in Northern Quebec, Cree Spoken Here, and Inuit Cree Reconciliation.

Friday night: after a long week at work, it is time to settle in for a movie night. For this, I propose Reel Injun. This documentary focuses on the portrayal of Indigenous people in Hollywood films. It addresses stereotypes and inaccuracies in both historical and contemporary films. It is available from The film is directed by Neil Diamond, who is an award-winning filmmaker from Waskaganish, a community within the region.

Saturday morning: Time to get out of the house and enjoy the sunshine. Grab your blanket because it is time to go your nearest park and settle in with the book The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee: Stories of Diabetes and the James Bay Cree.

This is a collection of true stories about people from the region and their journeys with diabetes. These stories capture the many ways in which colonialism and changes in lifestyle have contributed to the high rates of diabetes in the Cree Nation. They trace the effects of starvation in residential school, racism within the health system, forced community relocation and the ways in which the loss of culture all contribute to diabetes. I highly recommend this book, which can be ordered from Some of the stories are also available in audiobook for free from

Saturday Afternoon: Whatever your favourite mode of exercise is on the weekend, why not play some tunes from Cree artists while you get your sweat on? Angel Baribeau is a musician from the region. Check out one of my favourites of their songs: SAVAGE.

Saturday Night: Time for another Neil Diamond film! The documentary, Inuit Cree Reconciliation films the Inuit and Cree coming together to celebrate 200 years of peace. The film tells stories of the violent clashes between the two groups throughout the 18th century. The film also showcases the beautiful northern landscape.

Photo of Cree artist Angel Baribeau

Angel Baribeau, originally from Mistissini, is a singer, songwriter. Their debut solo album For Those I Love(d), is set for release in 2020.

Sunday Morning: Today, we will head to a museum. The Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute is located in Oujé-Bougoumou. This is the newest of the communities in the region, with a population of 900 people. The museum offers virtual exhibits, showcasing artifacts like a bible printed in Cree Syllabics, different furs, arrowheads, etc. There are also several short informational video clips.

Sunday Lunch: Many people in the Cree region continue to enjoy country food. In the early spring, many spend weeks in the bush hunting for goose and in the autumn, they return to the bush for moose. Fishing is a popular pastime throughout the year, including ice fishing in the winter.

Although these foods cannot be experienced in the same fresh way here, there are ways to try Indigenous food in Montreal. For example, the Roundhouse Cafe, which employs Indigenous people who have been out of work or experienced homelessness serves much of its food on bannock. Bannock is certainly popular in the Cree Nation as well. Or if you’re baker, why not try to make your own bannock – there are many recipes online. To remind yourself that in another time, you could be eating fresh fish instead for lunch, watch this video about fishing trips in the region.

Sunday Evening: Labrador tea is a plant that grows in the region but is also available for purchase in Montreal.  So why not brew a cup while you settle in to watch my final film recommendation for the weekend. Cree of James Bay documents the Hydroelectric development in James Bay and the impact on the Cree culture. I particularly enjoyed this film because of its ability to capture Cree humour.

Certainly, these virtual options are not a perfect replacement. They will not allow you to experience being surrounded by the Cree language. They will not replace the beauty of the northern landscape. They do not allow you to become accustomed to living two minutes away from everything in your community, but hours away from everything outside of the community. Nevertheless, these resources are a wonderful way to learn more about the region and the Cree way of life.

I hope you joined me in checking out some of them!

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