the cities issue Life on the City Streets


The healing journey

Suzanne Stewart says easing homelessness among Aboriginal people requires an Aboriginal approach by Paul Fraumeni 

Since Canada was colonized by European peoples, it has not been easy being an Aboriginal person in this country.

Suzanne Stewart knows this as a member of the Yellowknife Dene First nation. Her mother and, later, three of Stewart’s younger siblings were forcibly removed from the family and sent to Canada’s infamous residential schools.

Stewart also understands the tortured past — and difficult present — of Canadian Aboriginal people from the more formal perspective of a university researcher and mental health professional. She is a registered psychologist, professor in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and OISE’s first Special Advisor to the Dean on Aboriginal Education.

With these perspectives in mind, Stewart is now conducting research to find concrete solutions to one of the burning problems facing Canadian Aboriginal people today — homelessness.

Stewart points out that since the 1970s, there has been a significant migration of Aboriginal people from rural areas to cities across Canada. Of the approximately 1.1 million Aboriginal people in Canada, more than 600,000 live in cities.

While this migration is part of the nationwide trend of urban population growth, a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people become homeless once they reach cities.

“The primary reason Aboriginal people are moving to the city is economic,” says Stewart. “There are very few jobs and educational opportunities on reserves and in rural areas. And because of globalization and multinational aggressions, Aboriginal people just don’t have a sustainable economy in their traditional communities anymore. So, they need to move to the city. And when they do, they believe life will improve.”

But why do so many Aboriginal people become homeless upon arriving in cities?

As is so often the case with homelessness, there are many reasons, says Stewart. But she points to the past abuses of Aboriginal people as creating a legacy of trauma that has disabled Aboriginal people in their ability to progress. And key among that abuse is the residential school experience.

“From the late 1800s to the early 1990s, almost 200,000 Aboriginal students were forcibly removed from their homes by the age of four or five and sent to government- owned and church-run boarding schools across Canada.They were not allowed to speak their language and they were kept away from their families. And there were high levels of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.”

The result, says Stewart, “is what in Western psychology we call ‘trauma.’ And when people are living with trauma it’s very difficult to function in a healthy way. People do whatever they have to do to survive. Many turn to substances to help them cope. Every Aboriginal person in Canada today has a direct or indirect impact from the residential schools and it will take a number of generations for those impacts to heal.”

But Stewart is committed to helping the healing process to move forward.

She is developing a research program that examines “how the social processes of education, culture, work, individual difference, family and community work together to support people in keeping them off the streets. We know what’s wrong with people. What we need to know now is how to keep Aboriginal people alive and mentally healthy. What is a model that would work?”

Essential to developing this model, she says, is an approach that is Aboriginal by its very nature.“In Western psychology, we define mental health as the state marked by the absence of disease. It’s different for Aboriginal people. For us, mental health is the balance between the four sacred aspects of the self — the mental, the emotional, the spiritual and the physical.”

Stewart believes that the experience of Canadian Aboriginal people is so different from other Canadians that a Western approach to developing concrete solutions to homelessness just cannot work. She has enlisted community partners in her research, in Toronto and abroad. Aboriginal students will be on her team, for example, and she will also work with partners in Hawaii, where native Hawaiians face similar challenges due to past colonialism.

“Part of the healing journey for Aboriginal people is enabling us to be responsible and deal with our own problems. We need to use our own indigenous knowledge system to address contemporary social problems, so we can be healthy and so we can be there to help other people who are on the same healing journey.”

    EDGE / Fall 2013