The prospect of moving to Ottawa not meant that Michael Singoorie would be living closer to his ailing mother, but he also saw this move as an opportunity to seek the treatment that he so desperately needed.
“My mother was never abusive towards me when I was young, but my siblings were. They were drunks. A couple of us were in the residential schools,” Singoorie said. “My older brother was a heavy drinker, and that’s when I started seeing alcohol and drug abuse.”
While growing up in Iqaluit, Singoorie began to experiment with drugs and alcohol at the age of 15. But Singoorie, now 53, continues to struggle with his addictions, and finds himself stranded in Ottawa without a home.
“I used to tell myself that I would never be like my brothers. But I turned out like them. That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he said.
Singoorie said that there are times where he reminisces over the culture that he had left behind.
“I used to do a lot of traditional practices when I was growing up, like hunting on the land all the time. I miss it. It gave me a sense of identity,” he said.
But having been detached from these practices for so long, Singoorie said that he isn’t quite ready to return to those traditions.
“It’s not really hopeless. It’s just the doom and gloom at the moment. I don’t know what it is,” he said.
Several help centres and emergency shelters in Ottawa have recognized that this loss of culture is all too familiar for many homeless indigenous peoples. Organizations are hoping that their efforts to connect the homeless indigenous peoples back to their traditional cultural practices is enough to help guide them towards the road to recovery.
Allan Ryan, an associate professor of indigenous and Canadian studies at Carleton University, said the notion of cultural separation has its roots in the residential school system.
“A lot of the time, the kids grew up to be parents but had nothing to teach about their culture and the language, so their own kids didn’t know what it meant to be an Aboriginal person,” Ryan said.
Ryan said that domestic abuse often led to children leaving their homes and culture behind for urban centres, but they didn’t know where to go or what to do once they got there.
A 2006 study for the University of Alberta by Yale D. Belanger and his team found that indigenous people made up 2 per cent of Ottawa’s total population. 18 per cent of that indigenous population was homeless, and 30 per cent of the homeless population in Ottawa was indigenous.
The purpose of the study was to improve “collective understanding and response to urban Aboriginal homelessness” by putting forth staggering figures related to indigenous homelessness, in order to illustrate the severity of the issue.
Irene Goodwin, the executive director of Tewegan Housing for Aboriginal Youth, said that she has noticed this lost sense of culture within the women who seek her organization for help.
“Largely, it’s not through any fault of their own,” Goodwin said.
Tewegan Housing is a transitional home for Aboriginal women aged 16 to 29. The organization believes that “by connecting a woman to her cultural roots, she will gain the confidence, pride and community she needs to succeed in life.”
Goodwin said that in order to give that cultural element back to the women, the house hosts various cultural workshops like traditional beading and drum-making, as well as dog-sledding and visits from Elders.
“Culture has a lot to do with maintaining the mental health of an individual, as well as maintaining their state of well being,” she said.
Goodwin added that much of Tewegan’s cultural practices revolve around the “Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers,” a set of teachings consisting of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth.
“When they understand the teachings around bravery, for example, they’ll come to discover that they have a lot of courage. They have a lot of wisdom and power inside of them that they may not have seen before,” Goodwin said.
John Kelly, the co-director for the Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE) at Carleton University, said that culture is important for any indigenous person.
“Culture is the means by which an indigenous person has identity. It connects an indigenous person to the stories. To the Elders. To themselves,” Kelly said.
“Culture,” Kelly said, “can provide the motivation to move forward and be strong.”
Meara Zinn, the manager of client services at the Shepherds of Good Hope, said that the organization has recognized the difference in cultural needs for their indigenous clients.
As a result, Zinn said that the organization has modified their services in order to better cater to their indigenous clients.
The Shepherds of Good Hope is an organization “dedicated to serving the needs of the poor and the homeless.” It serves as a shelter for both men and women, and gives them access to food and clothing.
Through their Inuit culture liaison program, the organization hosts events like feasts, beading activities and tea talks.
Zinn said that she has noticed that the program’s activities have contributed to a growing sense of community for the indigenous clients.
“Being able to have events that are geared towards hobbies and cultural practices, which really gives them a sense of relief, is really important,” she said.
But Ryan said that while these culturally driven programs and services can be beneficial, they may not encompass all of the different values found across the various indigenous groups in Canada.
“You have Cree people teaching some of their teachings, but there might be quite a number of people there that aren’t Cree,” he said. “Yes, it’s a native teaching. But it’s not everyone’s.”
Rather than connecting the indigenous homeless to specific programming, some social workers have taken it upon themselves to help guide the homeless down a path of spiritual rehabilitation.
Frank Leaney, an addictions worker at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, said that he often shares with his clients his experiences with traditional practices and ceremonies and how they helped him combat his addictions.
“All I can do is talk about my experiences and how much it helped me,” Leaney said.
The ceremonies that Leaney is referring to are Sundance and Midewiwin ceremonies, rituals which Leaney said “gives you an opportunity to grieve and come into a full circle of acceptance.”
The Wabano Centre is a community help centre that “provides a wide range of medical clinics, social services and support, and youth programs” for Ottawa’s indigenous population.
Leaney described his road to recovery as “an inward journey,” and said that he can’t see himself getting to where he is today if he hadn’t engaged in ceremonies and practiced the Seven Grandfather Teachings.
“The teachings help you internalize the gifts. You can talk about them all you want mentally, but to be able to internalize them, I think that’s the key,” he said.
Similarly, Vince Kicknosway, the cultural resource program coordinator at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre, works to connect clients to resources and traditions that he had once reached out to for help.
“When people come to me, part of my job is to share with them that they are gifted. But as an individual, you have to take a look at what these gifts are,” Kicknosway said.
Kicknosway said that by practicing the “Seven Teachings,” he was able to overcome his drug and alcohol addictions.
Like the Wabano Centre, the Odawa Native Friendship Centre is an indigenous help centre in Ottawa that strives to “provide all individuals and families with various programs and dedicated services to help better their personal lives and spiritual wellness.”
By offering access to resources like Elders and traditional teachers, Kicknosway said that he wants to help others discover these teachings, and guide individuals towards recognizing the gifts within them.
“That’s the choice of them to search for these gifts, as I did to learn my identity—to be proud of it,” he said. “They do it. They recognize the simplistic way that they are gifted.”
Kicknosway said that his only hope is that the homeless realize that the resources are out there.
“It’s the spiritual faith in yourself of believing in who you are. That’s all I’m out here to do — to provide the resources, if so willing to reach out and make that choice,” he said.
But Kicknosway added that it ultimately comes down to whether an indigenous homeless individual is ready to receive help.
“As the old saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink,” he said.