Success in the city: Native housing in Thunder Bay helps newcomers adapt
At the northwest corner of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay (pop. 108,000) is one of the largest cities between Sudbury and Winnipeg. As Aboriginal people leave First Nations reserves in Northern Ontario to seek employment, cities like Thunder Bay act as transitional zones.
“The biggest thing that Native people coming from reserves need is core services like healthcare, education and housing,” says John Abramowich, Housing Manager of the Native People of Thunder Bay Development Corporation (NPTBDC). “Unemployment on First Nations reserves is astronomically high; about 80 per cent…cities have employment and education opportunities for people looking for a better way of life.”
Aboriginal people coming into urban areas face many challenges, including discrimination. Many may also have difficulty preserving their language, identity, and culture, as well as passing their traditions onto future generations.
According to Statistics Canada, Aboriginal people make up more than 8 per cent of Thunder Bay’s population. The city developed the Thunder Bay Urban Aboriginal Strategy in 2003 with the goal of addressing urban Aboriginal family poverty through community collaboration.
Thunder Bay is home to a healthy mix of Aboriginal groups, which aids in the transition to city life, says Abramowich. “When people come from First Nations, they risk losing their link to their community. In Thunder Bay, friendship centres and not-for-profits help newcomers in their transition to an urban environment.”
Abramowich adds that, in coming to an urban environment, many Aboriginal people need special help to make a successful transition. Newcomers need to learn how to navigate the city, how to maintain tenancies and how to access Aboriginal groups and city services. “It’s one big guided tour,” he says.
NPTBDC, which has a portfolio of 239 mostly detached units, has two tenant relations workers on staff to help people settle into the city.
“Once people come into the urban centre and establish themselves, most gain employment and many buy their own homes,” Abramowich says. “I’ve seen tenants come in and go to school, then graduate and move out of non-profit housing. It’s very rewarding to see successes like that.”
As Ontario’s urban Aboriginal population continues to grow, capacity becomes a challenge for housing providers in cities like Thunder Bay, Fort Francis, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Kenora, Cochrane, Timmins, Temiskaming, and Rainy River.
“The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) used to play an active role in the creation of native housing,” Abramowich explains. “Since downloading to the province and then to the municipalities, we’ve lost that government support. It’s very difficult to acquire new housing and to maintain what we have.”
Organizations like ONPHA and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association play an important role in lobbying governments for support and informing the dialogue on social housing within communities.
“There hasn’t been any new social housing in 20 years,” Abramowich says. “There’s a very high demand. The biggest challenge people have coming from First Nations is housing affordability.”