Downtown YK needs compassion, not cleaning up

On EDGE: Opinion

by Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox

All along what is now School Draw Avenue, and down into Old Town, the stories abound:

“My grandma used to have her cabin there. She went out on the land one summer and when she got back in the fall, it had been torn down.”

Injustices committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada are legion. Government-sponsored residential schools, starvation experiments on Native kindergarteners, prison-like hospitals…and in our own backyard, illegal land dispossession, environmental poisoning by industry requiring perpetual care (Giant Mine)…the list goes on.

And yet, most Yellowknifers don’t make the connection between those historical and ongoing injustices and the homeless people along 50th Street and the downtown core.

In the 1970s and 1980s, anthropologists and sociologists started theorizing about “skid row Indians.” Why, they asked, of the most visibly impoverished and self-medicated of the urban poor, were many of them Indigenous? The academics’ big insight was that the spectacle created by public homelessness and attendant social ills was a form of resistance. It flouted colonial settler expectations that Indigenous peoples would go quietly; that is, leave the area, or assimilate and allow white society to take Indigenous lands. Disappear


But the theory lacked explanatory power – what forces create circumstances where the resistance behavior flourishes? One way to understand the situation is to examine the larger forces causing symptoms of colonization (such as homelessness) in a population.

“Social suffering” is a theory that proposes this: where government policy or political choice inflicts trauma on a specific population (think the genocide in Rwanda, residential school policies), then you can expect suffering on a collective or population scale. Suffering shows itself as collective poverty, social problems, addictions, homelessness, etc. This theory sees that colonial policy not only harms populations; important “protective factors” – things that help people as individuals and as a collective cope and heal in a positive way, such as maintaining strong social and cultural ties to the land – are also removed.

Cleaning up downtown? The city can buy every building on 50th Street and Starbucks the place to death. Suffering will still continue, because colonization and its ongoing impacts are alive and well; while another critical protective factor – public awareness and compassion – is absent. Homelessness is not a result of 50th Street – that street is merely the backdrop.

Addressing it will take much more than a property re-development scheme. It requires developing principles to guide a multi-dimensional strategy. It requires concrete actions squarely addressing the social context, such as supporting, resourcing and working with helping agencies to ensure a range of solutions. The city needs cost/benefit analyses of engaging in socially responsible ways of meeting the needs of a small, yet highly visible homeless population. It requires the city loudly, actively and compassionately advocating on behalf of the homeless and troubled, not against them.

The time for uninformed colonial settler fantasies of “cleaning up the downtown core” has passed. A society that stands by and allows colonial policies and ongoing oppression needs to clean itself up, starting with governing policies and public education. Impacted people are not garbage to be cleaned up. They are the product of our society, and stand as a measure of how the most vulnerable fare here. That the homeless population in Yellowknife is composed overwhelmingly of Indigenous individuals is a testament to Canada’s failure, a testament to a repugnant ongoing colonization, and a testament to the city’s failure to do the right things rather than the easy things.

Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, PhD, is a lifelong Northerner & mother of two boys. She is the author of Finding Dahshaa: Self Government, Social Suffering and Aboriginal Policy in Canada (UBC Press, 2009).


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