A question Regina Ward 7 Coun. Terina Shaw asked about homelessness and Indigenous culture during a city council meeting has sparked a conversation about cultural misconceptions.
The question came up during discussion of a motion aimed at ending homelessness in Regina.
Shaw’s question, posed to Sheila Wignes-Paton of the Phoenix Residential Society during last Wednesday’s city council meeting, included an anecdote about an Indigenous person from Regina Treaty/Status Indian Services (RT/SIS) that Shaw had spoken with.
Shaw said she was told there are people within the Indigenous culture who do not want homes.
“Can you address that and speak to that please? Because until I had heard that from her, I had no idea there were people like that who existed, and I guess that does exist, and are you aware of it?” Shaw asked.
Wignes-Paton responded by saying, “I think maybe it’s settler culture imposing something on the Indigenous community, and some may choose to not have a home per se. They’re more comfortable in living with different people [and] moving around, so I can see that that happens.”
Wignes-Paton went on to say the majority of people Phoenix Residential works with in its home project are Indigenous and that everybody’s individual wishes are respected.
Shaw then followed up.
“That just verifies what she said, that there always will be people that are quote-unquote homeless in the Indigenous culture because of what they prefer, through the mayor, is that correct?” Shaw asked.
“Yes, I would say it would be,” Wignes-Patron responded.
Later in the meeting, Kale MacLellan presented her support for the motion to end homelessness. At the end of her presentation she spoke directly to councillor Shaw.
“No, there are not people who want to be homeless. Everyone wants a place to call home. Some people choose to travel, just like people who choose to spend their winters in Arizona or Florida,” MacLellan said.
“Framing homelessness as a choice is a weird take. Nobody chooses to be homeless. Nobody chooses to be insecure.”
Ward 6 Coun. Daniel LeBlanc asked MacLellan if she happened to be Indigenous and if she was familiar with the traditions of Plains Indigenous people.
“I am Indigenous, so I’m probably the right person to be asking that question to, not another white lady,” MacLellan said.
In an interview with CBC, Councillor Shaw said that when she asked Wignes-Patron the question, she was not “even really” looking at the colour of her skin.
“I was asking her since she had been dealing with the housing first,” Shaw said. “It seemed like she was kind of the expert in that since she’d been dealing with that sort of housing for many years.”
Shaw went on to say that there are people — not just Indigenous people — who might not desire housing.
“I’ve worked with people [from] all different types of backgrounds that don’t always want a home, they want to be roamers, they want to be the gypsies of the world,” she said, using an ethnic label widely considered offensive and historically inaccurate, “and that’s OK too.”
Shaw said the question came from the bottom of her heart and that it was prompted by information from an Indigenous leader in the community.
“We were told that not everybody wants a home, that in the Indigenous culture, there’s people that are called Wanderers,” she said. “My question was, if this is true, which supposedly it is true, then we need to find a place where we meet people at their needs and where they want.”
She said she asked the question because she wanted it addressed in council.
“We as council and mayor, we aren’t the experts, the people that are out there, the non-profit organizations, the people that are leading this and doing this work every single day are the experts.”
Shaw said she meant no harm and feels like no apology is necessary.
“I just asked a question, I wanted some clarification and some help to understand.”
Response from advocates
MacLellan, a community organizer and student, said in an interview with CBC that Shaw’s comments were “an interesting way to frame homelessness.”
“I’m not aware of any teachings about people who choose to be homeless repeatedly,” she said. “It’s really disappointing to hear that rhetoric repeated by Coun. Shaw because it’s only one person’s point of view she’s taking into consideration and not the countless other Indigenous people who have been telling her that people need homes and people want homes now.”
MacLellan said these sorts of comments can harm Indigenous people experiencing homelessness.
“If people view this as not a problem, or that these are people who just choose to be homeless, it makes it a lot harder for people who want to find secure living,” she said. “I think it’s a really easy way for city officials to bounce the blame off themselves.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) released a statement Wednesday asking that Shaw become educated on the true history of Canada.
“Without an honest understanding, reconciliation is impossible,” the statement read.
It said it is upsetting that an elected official on Treaty 4 Territory perpetuated “such racist and uneducated views.”
“First Nations people have been beaten and broken by this system again and again, and it just continues with statements like this,” the statement continued. “Colonization is the cause of First Nations people living without homes.”
“No one chooses to be homeless.”
Indigenous homelessness advocate Shylo Stevenson presented at Wednesday’s city council meeting and was present during Shaw’s question. In an interview with CBC, he said Shaw’s remarks shocked him.
“It blew my mind,” he said. “We were told to hush because we were just blown away.”
Stevenson said he wished the question would have been directed toward an Indigenous person with cultural experience in the field.
“The person she asked was not the way to go.”
Stevenson said he has not been taught about people who do not want to have homes.
“Maybe she misinterpreted what was shared with her, I don’t know, but we are nomadic people,” he said. “We travel around, we move around, but in no way have I ever met anybody that wants to be homeless.”
Stevenson said Shaw’s comments were frustrating, as they could potentially add to the stigma around Indigenous homelessness.
“That just fed into it, and to be acknowledged like that in a city council meeting is just another slap in the face to the Indigenous culture.”
Coun. LeBlanc says inside conversations not for settlers to ‘weaponize’
LeBlanc said in an interview with CBC that while he doesn’t claim to know everything about Indigenous knowledge, there are general misconceptions regarding homeless people. He said ideas about some people wanting to be homeless, “are largely overblown.”
LeBlanc, who put the initial motion forward, said that even if a few people feel that way, there are still hundreds who want housing and can’t get it.
He said he knew Shaw had heard this information from a “very well respected Indigenous leader in town,” but that leader was not in the room during the council meeting.
“I would say whatever internal conversations the Indigenous community might be having, it’s not for settlers to use that knowledge that might be shared with them, or in some ways to weaponize that knowledge,” he said.
LeBlanc said the city has often made the common mistake of thinking reconciliation should be settler-led.
“[People think] reconciliation should always feel comfortable for settlers and I think that’s a racist assumption too.”
“I’m not saying councillor Shaw makes those. I’m saying I, and we as a city, have made those historically and it’s time for us to do some uncomfortable but necessary reconciliation.”