A walk in the cold for the homeless

THUNDER BAY – Travelling down Memorial Avenue, in Thunder Bay, it’s about nine kilometres from the Dew Drop Inn soup kitchen in Port Arthur, to the Social Services Administration building in Fort Williams. Most days, you’d find what you’d expect along the way: shops, restaurants, banks, cars and pedestrians. But you’ll probably also see a large number of homeless people, more than half of whom are indigenous.

But last Thursday, Jan. 28, 2015, if you happened to be on Memorial Avenue around noon, you may have also seen Darlene and Virginia Necan walking down the middle of the road holding signs reading: “Rich Chief / Poor Members, Impoverished and Homeless, Ojibway Nation of Saugeen #258.

The two Ojibway sisters are off-reserve members of the Saugeen Nation #258. Darlene is an elected spokesperson for off-reserve members. She is also currently homeless. So on Thursday they decided to brave the -8 weather to stage a walk to bring attention to the homelessness epidemic afflicting the off-reserve members of Saugeen. The cause, she said, is poor leadership.

“We did a walk to bring awareness to our reserve situation and to protest being homeless,” she said in a phone interview. “To let people know that nothing has changed and nothing is resolved. We’re still being shoved under, still being muzzled and not being paid attention to, still going through that mentality with our leadership.”

This isn’t Darlene’s first protest. As the spokesperson for her band, she’s been diligent in organizing marches and fundraisers. She even helped build a home for an elderly community member who had been living in a chicken coop for decades as a result of her Chief’s and council’s negligence, who knowingly allowed her to live there until she got frostbite so bad, “Her toes were sticking to her socks,” Darlene recalled.

Those efforts have been interrupted in the last few months, because Darlene is also being sued by the Ontario government for allegedly building a plywood cabin on Crown Land without a permit. She’s currently facing a $20,000 fine and charges under the Public Lands Act. But that’s where Darlene’s family has lived for generations, and in 2011 it was handed to her by her aunt, one of the band’s headsmen. In December, a fundraiser was organized in Toronto in Darlene’s name, and it brought in just over $3,000.

Since then, Darlene has had two court hearings in Sioux Lookout, Ont. But with neither a fixed address to receive documents on time, nor reliable transportation (or money for it) to make the nearly 400-kilometre trip from Thunder Bay, Darlene has had to ask for a remand to postpone the case through her lawyers both times.

Patty Hajdu, executive director of Shelter House-Thunder Bay, is no stranger to these realities. She said about 80 per cent of patrons at the shelter are indigenous, despite only making up about 8 per cent of the city’s population, according to the 2006 Statistics Canada figure.

“The root causes are a history of colonization in our country that has led to… these remote communities in the north being very isolated and not having the necessary infrastructure, or supports for people, or even economic opportunities,” she told the TRT. “So you have people growing up in deep and dire poverty and experiencing severe social exclusion.”

Because of these institutional obstacles, indigenous peoples suffer from insufficient, inferior or overcrowded houses. They also lack funds for improving education in the reserves, and many face mental and addiction problems. Some reserves have even lacked essentials, such as clean drinking water, for more than 10 years, said Hajdu.

“So the problems compound and compound…And we (end up with) a strong percentage of people that are here repeatedly and have long standing problems largely associated with their circumstances,” she added.

The Shelter House has introduced a new Program Manager position in order to help patrons get back on their feet. Brad King, the new program manager, helps find the best options for each patron, and then helps them to access those options, such as getting into the social housing waiting list, helping them find jobs, or even getting the psychiatric help clients may need.

“He’s really looking at each person and what their needs are,” said Hajdu, “and he tries to find the right blend of services.”

Unfortunately, the problem is so dire, that many homeless people continue slipping through the cracks.

That’s why Darlene wasn’t so surprised by the many weak and cold homeless faces she saw peppered on the sidewalks during their two-person-walk down Memorial Avenue. It was precisely for them that she and her sister Virginia, who has helped Darlene spiritually and physically, walked.

Then, about three or four blocks into Memorial Avenue, the two sisters got an unexpected boost, as they came across a Chronicle Journal reporter and restaurant owner who showed interest in their walk.

“We were walking by this restaurant and all of a sudden the owner came out and gave us coffee,” Darlene recalled happily. “These guys were perfect gentlemen. They talked to us, heard what we were saying and they encouraged us. And we felt good about the walk after that.”

Though it may have been only coffee and kind words from some strangers, the actions proved deeply significant to the 55-year old residential school survivor. Like many indigenous persons, Darlene has survived a troubled past marred by violence, poverty, alcoholism and even the suicide of one of her sons.

The stress her court case has caused has piled on to the heavy sorrow she carries, but it has not shaken her strength or integrity. She has remained sober for more than 14 years and remains deeply devoted to helping the Saugeen members out of poverty. So a few words of encouragement, especially from the non-native community, can go a long way.

This was especially true after they entered Fort Williams – “the native side of town,” said Darlene. They arrived after making a pit-stop at a Wal-Mart to pick up supplies to remake their signs, which had been destroyed in the strong winds. As they walked, they noticed that a police patrol was following them. Eventually they were stopped by the two officers inside it, who were also native. However, Darlene said, they, too, were “perfect gentlemen” who heard what they had to say, and encouraged them to go on.

“So I felt relieved, like maybe they’re starting to understand why we do this. I felt happy they were not going to arrest us, or ask our names, or check us out, or do what they normally do to people right away. It made the day go good and really positive,” she said.

Though the walk ended at the Social Services Administration building in Fort Williams just after 2 PM that afternoon, about three hours after it had begun, Darlene knows the fight is far from over. In fact, a new phase of it may have begun on Dec. 4, during the first meeting held in over thirty years between the band’s leadership and its members.

Unfortunately, Darlene says, it was only a “feel-out-meeting” that left many members dissatisfied and with too many questions unanswered.

“I could feel the tension in the crowd,” she said, which was facing the entire chief’s family, his lawyer and an auditor.

“So we were kind of like, ‘What are we going to expect?’ having never been invited to a meeting. So we observed their actions, their mentality, and the talk of these people… We have a lot of questions we need to ask, and just because we had this one meeting, it doesn’t correct all things,” she said.

The meeting, which was run largely by the chief’s lawyer, appeared to have been mostly about selling the community on a mining deal with Noront Mining company. In a previous article, the TRT reported that Noront – one of the major developers of the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in northern Ontario – has proposed a road running 280 kilometres east-west from Pickle Lake to Eagle’s Nest through highway 599. The house Darlene built for herself, and which the province claims is illegally built on Crown land, sits beside this highway.

“I cannot say too much because I don’t really know too much about it,” she said. “But from my point of view, they talked about how Noront wants to negotiate with the government of Saugeen, because they’re part of that Ring of Fire. But, again, that’s why I said we need another meeting,” she said.

Neither Chief Machimity nor his lawyer were available for comment before going to press.

Darlene will be speaking about homelessness and poverty on March 13, in Toronto, because it’s important to keep sharing the experiences until “we are really, really heard,” she said.

“I’ll keep going until I see justice in our reserve and with our people. Until I see equality. When I see fairness with our people and our leadership, that is the day I’ll step back. But until then, I’m going to keep pushing forward for our people, so that their lives are not taken advantage of.”

Darlene Necan can be contacted on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/dar.daydreamer

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