Lee Maracle: A Commissioned Poem for #HousingCentral

A sweeping narrative and scathing indictment of the lasting effects of colonialism, and the havoc it continues to wreak on Indigenous Peoples and communities, Lee Maracle’s poem touches on housing, homelessness, resource extraction and the complicated history underlying efforts at reconciliation.

I’m going home
To Paddle down the rivers of my mountains
And ply the deepest sound in the world
Watching out for orcas, whales and ouske

I’m going home
The language rolls inside my watery mouth before it leaves
To blow through cedar trees and patter across river stones
Snewksqs wayel 

I sing I am going home
To the base tones of Sto: lo music
My voice echoes the sea’s rolling swells
Home to where everyone holds you up

I am homeless in Tkaranto
No ancestors greet my prayers
No cedar assuages my spirit
no orcas echo my song

I do not belong here
Not even the water recognizes me
The air smells wrong: no kelp, no salt,
Seaweed or deep-sea fish

I am going home
Not sure I will find a place near pigeon square
May not be any SRO’s to take me in, I am old
Most of my relations have passed

Ok, still going home
Like Ta’ah I will retreat to the mountains
take my last walk among the dead
I will be home, blessed
Blessed, blessed…

Homelessness has always struck me as an insane concept, that it still occurs is even more insane.  You cannot be homeless unless there are laws that prohibit you from building a home.  Which means that you do not belong in the land of your birth.  I am indigenous, many Canadians are not.  We do not know each other very well.  We do not share the same story, the same land, the same memories and certainly we do not have the same laws..  You may or may not know how Canada was built but I want to begin with my story in this country.  I want you to know how I and my relatives went from free to oppressed and homeless in our homeland.  

We were never cut from the same cloth.  Canada focused its brief history alongside of us trying to get us to weave ourselves into the fabric of the country they wanted to create from the cloth of England.  The problem was that we have little or no face in the imported fabric.  I come from a group of people who were weavers.  We took our dog fur and collected goat hair from mountain goats and spun them into waterproof blankets.  England travelled the world to fin cloth, the implements to weave, the farms, and the hands to grow it.  Their country had been bled dry of product.  They needed the products of others to buy, sell and trade.

When the British arrived, they wanted us to buy things from them: cloth, sheep wool, etc.  But the dogs and things we owned were preferred and that prevented trade from happening.  So they shot our dogs seeking to make us desperate so that we would purchase their sheep wool.  Dogs do not rise from the dead.  There was nothing to do but buy the sheep and mix it with the goat hair and it while it did not work as well as our dogs; we had no choice.  Then they shot the goats.  In the end we only had their sheep.

The other thing we had was of cedar. Lots of it.  We built huge longhouses with them. After illness depopulated our villages, Canada denied us access to the cedar in our mountains.  Cedar was used for everything, clothing, tools, nets, needles, bowls, bows, spears and canoes and of course our homes.
Our territory was named crown land.   This must be the worst form of private property and the biggest cause of homelessness. If the crown owns all the land, then it gets to control who has a home and who does not.  The crown creates homelessness because it supports profit making, not housing people.  It has not been that way for very long.  But now, we are a monarchy.  No one at this conference is ever going to be a prince, or a princess in this monarchy, but we will always be subject to it.  The guns Canada owns guarantees it. In fact, we are all subject to it.  This makes us equals.

The crown is still the major landholder through force.  None of us ever agreed to this arrogance.  We still have not agreed to the concept of private property, but we are inching our way toward it. Canada by reason of the fracturing of our nations and the lack of access to our homeland has guaranteed it.  We were removed from our homes and sent to residential schools.  Now our beliefs, like our homes are blowing in the wind, turning to dust, and leaving us a barren wasteland of disbelief in ourselves.  We can drive across our land, but we cannot harvest its wealth.  That privilege belongs first to the crown and then to those who purchase licenses from the crown. This has led to our deliberate impoverishment and the ransacking of our nation. We are not the only ones.

Once the crown had control of our lands it offered them up for sale to non-Indigenous people while denying Indigenous people the right to purchase back the land.   But it carefully controlled who could purchase land and who could not.  The Chinese people who build t the railroad could not afford to purchase land – they had to pay a head tax first.  For almost 100 years we were slowly being deprived of food, clothing, and shelter.  We doubled up inside our tiny homes. We rented to the near homeless Chinese who were not allowed to live in white neighborhoods.  This was deliberate, structural underdevelopment and there is no way to recover from it.  Now the wealth of the Asian community comes from outside.  

We have different laws than the current country that so dominates everything.  Everyone deserves a home.  That was our belief.  The land belongs to itself and we have agreements with the land, contracts if you will.  That was our religion.  We agreed to caretake the land and the land agreed to allow to use its plants, animals, rivers, trees etc., if we did so responsively.  We have consistently fought Canada on this principal, primarily with fishing.  Slowly, we gained the right to fish, but it has been a restricted right since Canada established dominion over our lands.  We have the right to food fish, so we cannot acquire wealth from the act of fishing, without paying Canada and we cannot build our longhouses every again.  We will never pay Canada for the privilege of being here.  We will not do that.
No one has the right to deny someone access to use of the land.  We granted access when we were in the majority, but when Canada gained the upper hand and we were the minority, Canada denied us access.  We still cannot cut trees to build a log home.  Every now and then some young warrior goes into the bush, violates Canadian law, and harvests cedar Shakes.  My family is among them.  My children are among them.  This is our country.  We did not hand it over to anyone to be ruled and made homeless.  All these efforts were engaged to ensure profit making. Now this great profit-making venture includes exploiting the very people it was intended to privilege.  Although more of us are homeless, non-Indigenous people are not excluded from this terrible fate.  I do not know how many of you have been homeless, but I want you to imagine if you have not.  Homelessness means you are not worthy of shelter, you do not belong, you are worthy of neighbors or friends to engage in feasts, song and dance – you are not worthy of culture.

Non-profit housing is a response to this, but even this is a misnomer.  The wood used to build homes, the cement foundations, glass windows, roofs, walls, siding, basements are all from companies that made a profit off the harvest, the building and the creation of all the things that go into a house..  And the builders and contractors profited as well.  It is now big business.  It is lucrative, profitable, and we do not have access to that profit.

When capitalism began in England, it was in violation of English law.  So, the Crown abrogated the law and handed over empty fiefs to the burgeoning capitalists.  It was against the law to exploit women and children.  But the law was abrogated so women were hired, and child labor was deployed to build the factories and work in them.  They were paid much less than men. This set off a chain of events that were all linked together.  Cotton mills were brought from India and landed in Lancashire and Manchester, then outlawed in Goa, India, and other cotton milling towns of India.  Indians had to buy the cotton, grown in their land, and milled with their technology that was now in England and thus began the British imperial capitalist global economy. There was an endless supply of homeless people now, prepared to work at starvation wages. Some Brits got very rich.

There were laws against child rape, child labor, child abuse, but those laws did not apply to those areas (Industrial townships) where the law was abrogated.  Working those children to death was common.  Beating them, raping them and so forth were also common.  Not paying them was also common.  Capitalism has always been plagued with a boom and bust economic cycle.  Because people do not go out and get what they need – instead they work and produce for the capitalist, when there is a recession, the workers starve.  The capitalist plunders the land and sells the excess produce from the workers labour.  It uses water, coal, wood, and other resources to create the milling, so in the end it destroys the wealth.  The recessions are periodic and as predictable as death and taxes.  Homelessness results from these recessions.   In Europe, particularly Britain, land was owned by aristocrats, people belonged to the land and the aristocrats dominated their citizens. In Scotland the crown appropriated sheep walks, and the Scottish farm men were sent to Canada.  During the potato famine Irish families lands were appropriated and the Irish were forced to rent holes in the ground – digs – or were sent to America and Canada with no prospects of acquiring good land.

When British men first came.  They asked if they could live on the land.  Our host laws dictate that we cannot refuse anyone access to enough land to build a house.  We had no concept of anyone holding other people hostage to someone who claimed to own the land.  We had no homeless people, and we had no wealthy landowners.  Some of us lived in big homes, some lived in tipis, others in log houses, but everyone was entitled to build themselves a house.  
Canada is a vast territory, much of it unsettled.  There are whole ranges full of trees that could build people homes.  Open valleys, desert plateaus, but no one is entitled to build there, someone owns it.

When the British arrived in Newfoundland they slaughtered the Beothuk part of the MiG Magi people of Newfoundland and put bounties on the rest of the people that lived there: 30 pounds for a male alive or a scalp and 25 pounds for a living woman or child.  

In the beginning white men were not allowed to bring white women to Canada unless they were wealthy.  The hope was that the white men would take the women as country wives and they would create a loyal population that was familiar with the land but obedient to the crown. Most of the indigenous died.  If they were killed deliberately, they died of disease.  

Shawandithit died in 1829 as the last survivor of her people.  Death still plagues Indigenous women and girls particularly.  Expensive housing has created homelessness, when leads to alcoholism and despair and eventually homelessness.  All these issues were bound together under the mantle of colonialism. 

In 1905 Canada sold our mountain ranges behind us to a white man for $25.00 and told us they would hold the money in trust for us. There are no trust funds a certain senator has informed me.   There is not a dime in those trust accounts he assured me.  They have been collecting our money for a century and a half to the tune of 3 trillion dollars and there is not a dime to be had.  Three trillion dollars would end our housing crisis and provide for the peacekeepers we need to prevent the murder of our women and children.  We had the mountains behind us and the very trees on them stolen from us.  

Those mountains were covered in trees, food, clams, camas, wild carrots, cabbages, kelp, elk, deer and rivers and oceans of fish, orcas, and seal.  We wanted for nothing.  But then Canada decided we were not entitled to it.  And so, they arrested us for fishing, they arrested us for cutting down trees, for plucking shingles from the roots of giant cedars.  Well into the 80’s helicopters scoured the mountains to try and catch us splitting shingles from old roots.  We went to jail, when we came out of jail many of our longhouses were burned to the ground. Long after we had no longhouses, we harvested shingles and the helicopters chased us.  They chased me, my siblings, my niece, and my children.

Today Indigenous people are 13.2 times more likely to experience homelessness and Indigenous men are twice as likely to experience homelessness than indigenous women.  33% of respondents to a survey were Indigenous. Indigenous people are also more likely to be ill as compared to non-indigenous people.

Non-profit housing societies were formed out of desperation by educated people who were being rendered homeless. Williams said she has been inside many other SROs in the Downtown Eastside.
The poorly housed,
“Without a big-time rejuvenation, I’m not sure how long these buildings can hold on,” Williams said. “Many of these buildings have huge bug problems, rodent infestations, bad plumbing, windowless rooms and just generally undesirable living conditions.  This can be remedied.  But we have to extend the non-profit concept past just organizations that coordinate the creation of social housing.  What if?

We stopped kidding ourselves that there is non-profit housing.

What if we formed non-profit shingle splitting companies and demanded permission to split the stumps on our mountains to put non-profit roofs on new housing.

What if we formed non-profit lumber yards, brought trees from our mountains?

And with a mill we purchase split the twoXfours, and other lumber to frame a house.

What if we formed cement making cooperatives, building brigades non-profit and competed to 
Build non-profit housing. 

Indeed what if we created real non-profit housing and insisted on access to our wealth??? 

What if this conference was a new beginning?  That from here we in we engage in discussions that will alter the course of British history and begin the course of a new story.  A story connected to the past of this continent and the inclusion of every citizen now living here.  What if we could figure out how to be non-profit and pro- people.