"I want to see these words turned into action": neoliberalism and urban housing for elderly people of aboriginal origin.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Canadians (Personal narratives)
Housing policy (Personal narratives)
Community development (Personal narratives)
Urbanization (Personal narratives)
Indigenous peoples (Personal narratives)
Low income housing (Personal narratives)
Aged (Personal narratives)
Canadian native peoples (Personal narratives)
Public health (Personal narratives)
Authors: Lange, Lauren
Skelton, Ian
Meade, Thelma
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 440 Facilities & equipment
Product: Product Code: 9007000 Housing & Development-Total Govt; 9107120 Housing Programs; 8000120 Public Health Care; 9005200 Health Programs-Total Govt; 9105200 Health Programs NAICS Code: 925 Administration of Housing Programs, Urban Planning, and Community Development; 92511 Administration of Housing Programs; 62 Health Care and Social Assistance; 923 Administration of Human Resource Programs; 92312 Administration of Public Health Programs
Organization: Government Agency: Canada. Mortgage and Housing Corp. Organization: Assembly of First Nations
Geographic: Geographic Scope: India; Canada Geographic Code: 9INDI India; 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 243797913
Full Text: Abstract

Many elderly people of Aboriginal origin find themselves displaced as they move from rural reserves into urban settings. The majority relocate to cities for medical purposes and fall between the cracks of an already fragile support system. Responsibility for their needs, particularly in relation to housing, is not clearly assigned to band organizations or governments within the current neoliberal policy climate. Some move in with family members or friends. Others have secured units in non-profits, while several reside in single room occupancy hotels or rooming houses. Preliminary research indicates many are living in unhealthy and unsafe environments. This study begins to document situations and conditions in which elderly people of Aboriginal origin are currently living in Winnipeg and across Canada. It also aims to assist the Aboriginal Senior Resource Centre (ASRC) in supporting elderly Aboriginals in Winnipeg and suggests broader long-term considerations on how to address the needs of these individuals.

Keywords: elderly, Aboriginal people, housing, Winnipeg, neoliberalism


Les aines d'origine autochtone se sentent perdus lorsqu'ils quittent leurs reserves en milieu rural pour venir s'installer en milieu urbain. La plupart demenagent pour des raisons medicales, pour etre ensuite oublies par manque d'appuis dans un systeme deji fragile. Le climat de politiques neoliberales actuel assure mal leurs besoins car il n'y a pas d'attribution claire des responsabilites des organisations autochtones et des gouvernements. Certains aines emmenagent avec des members de la famille ou des amis. D'autres se procurent des loyers dans des logements a but non lucratif, et plusieurs demeurent dans des chambres a louer ou des hotels. Des recherches preliminaires indiquent que ces environnements sont souvent insalubres et non-securitaires. Cette etude documente les situations et les conditions dans lesquelles les aines autochtones se retrouvent aujourd'hui a Winnipeg et au Canada. Le but est d'appuyer le centre de ressource des aines autochtones dans ses demarches pour aider les aines de Winnipeg. Cette etude suggere aussi des pistes de solutions a long terme pour tenter de repondre aux besoins de ces individus.

Mots cles: aines, peuple autochtone, logement, Winnipeg, neoliberalisme


The importance of suitable, adequate and affordable housing as a basis upon which well-being can be built has been widely recognized (Butler-Jones 2008; Jackson 2004; Layton 2008; Skelton and Mahe 2009). While many people living in Canada enjoy very high housing standards, several groups remain in dire housing need (CMHC 2005). In April 2009, the Manitoba Research Alliance was approached by one of its community members who pointed out that elderly people of Aboriginal origin living in Canadian cities are one such group, as anecdotal evidence abounds about their homelessness and other forms of housing-related stress. Consequently, the Alliance undertook the study reported here.

This paper provides an analysis and documentation of urban housing issues and services for elderly Aboriginal people, drawing especially upon experience in Winnipeg's inner city. The study team comprised researchers from the Aboriginal Senior Resource Centre (ASRC) and the University of Manitoba. It included experience of research in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal contexts and language competence in Cree and Ojibway. The purpose of the project was to assist the ASRC in supporting elderly Aboriginal people in Winnipeg, especially in Winnipeg's inner city, while allowing for longer-term considerations regarding ways with which to address these needs more broadly.

The paper confirms that many elderly people of Aboriginal origin in Winnipeg, as well as in other inner cities, live in unsatisfactory conditions. It argues that the current neoliberal policy climate sustains uncertainty about responsibility for providing adequate housing for elderly Aboriginal migrants, and underscores the need for a national housing program. In what follows, we outline salient features of the current policy context that influence existing outcomes and potential policy options; review the scant literature on elderly Aboriginal people in cities; describe the methods used to gather and analyse empirical evidence through interviews and group processes; discuss results from the analysis; and advance conclusions and recommendations.

A complex policy context

Urban housing for elderly Aboriginal people involves multiple levels of complexity. Its visibility in the policy sphere has surfaced relatively recently. It was not a target of national programs that directed resources towards housing for elderly people as public housing in the 1960s and 1970s, or as non-profits in the 1970s through to the early 1990s. Those programs, while limited in scope, did provide units of affordable housing at quality levels that surpassed market provision, bur for other targeted groups (Skelton 1998).

Now that an awareness of the need is emerging, there are several, inter-related contextual barriers to the development of strategies. First, considering the history of colonialist relations that have assimilated and oppressed Aboriginal communities (Adams 1999; Alfred 1999; Cardinal 1969), one can expect that similar forces may shape future policy.

Second, its physical situation in the cities has numerous consequences: it involves contested constitutional responsibility between the Federal and Provincial governments (Walker 2003); it brings onto the agenda self-determination of urban Aboriginal communities, and therefore calls for major realignment of relationships with non-Aboriginal communities (Belanger and Walker 2009; Moore, Walker, and Skelton under review; Walker 2008a); and it requires First Nations organizations to relate to migration in and out of reserves (AFN 2007).

Third, neoliberal influences in the contemporary policy climate militate against collective solutions (Jessop 2002) by asserting faith in market mechanisms as reliable forces for fulfilling social needs; by rejecting the state as a viable producer or organizer of social goods and services; by promoting imagery of individualism; and by characterizing social issues as consequences of individual failures. Neoliberalism has underlain an orientation to markets in low-cost housing policy in Canada and elsewhere, despite widespread recognition that markets have consistently failed to produce housing at prices that poor people can afford (Skelton and Ribeiro 2010). In relation to urban Aboriginal communities in Canada, Walker (2008b) argues that the reluctance of neoliberal states to provide consistent and adequate resources undermines gains to Aboriginal communities that can be achieved through self-determination.

Fourth, there is relatively little knowledge, outside networks directly involved, of processes that lead elderly Aboriginal people to move to urban areas or of their conditions there. This paper begins to fill this gap, with sensitivity to the other circumstances just outlined.

National resources were directed towards housing for people of Aboriginal origin in cities through the Urban Native Housing Program (UNHP), though that program did not target the elderly. The federal government froze UNHP along with other housing programs in 1993, moving to disassociate itself from responsibility for social housing. With the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI) introduced in 2001, the federal government does not reclaim responsibility because it contributes capital funding, but not ongoing subsidies. Consistent with the neoliberal policy climate, AHI represents a shift towards market provision through owner occupation or public-private partnerships.

Nonprofits developed under the UNHP rent relatively small numbers of units to the elderly. A few residential and related facilities for elderly Aboriginal people have emerged in cities in Canada as proponents have secured resources from various sources in the absence of a national program. The Kekinan Centre, located in Winnipeg's inner city, accommodates 60 households. The Aboriginal Senior Resource Centre (ASRC) is a small organization funded primarily by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority with additional resources from Manitoba Seniors and Healthy Aging Secretariat, New Horizons, the Ethno-Cultural Program and the North End Renewal Corporation. ASRC provides information and supports, but underfunding prevents it from keeping pace with requests. In Ottawa, the nonprofit housing corporation Gignul purchased and renovated an apartment building to produce the Madawan Lodge, with 11 units and a common space, opening in 2001. Other centres provide temporary accommodation for medical visits, such as the Aboriginal Patients Lodge in Vancouver built by Lu'ma Housing Society. More information on existing provision can be found in Lange (forthcoming).

Urban housing for elderly people of Aboriginal origin in the literature

Currently, 54 percent of Aboriginal people in Canada live in cities and comprise approximately 9-10 percent of the population of Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg (Statistics Canada 2006). This population is growing relatively rapidly, particularly its young and elderly components (Cooke et al. 2008; MUNHA 2007). Migration to the city is marked by racism, presenting barriers in rental and owner-occupied housing (Just 2005), and the process involves several returns to the reserve (Distasio et al. 2005), and multiple moves within the city (Skelton 2002). Walker (2005) documents cultural and language barriers, further complicating access to housing and services (ASRC 2009). Peters (2002) describes discriminatory outcomes in job markets and differentiation in terms of rights to services.

Urban housing available to Aboriginal households is often of low quality (CMHC 2009) and typically suits them poorly. For many Aboriginal groups it is important that family members, from youth to the elderly, reside together. Frideres (1994) points to mutual support, to the youth bringing a sense of life into the home, and to the elderly setting the example. Saladin d'Anglure (1994) argues that youth living in close proximity to older relatives is key to the preservation of language and culture. Intergenerational living requires larger dwelling units than are typically affordable in cities (see Deane & Smoke this volume), and it may run afoul of landlords leading to eviction.

An Assembly of First Nations study reports that 95 percent of Aboriginal elderly people interviewed would prefer to receive continuing care in their own community, but that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada placed a "moratorium on the construction of new care facilities for seniors in the late 1980s, which has since been lifted and replaced with very restrictive terms for approval of new facilities" (AFN 2007, 15). Consequently, medical and support needs force many elderly to move to the city, despite evidence that their quality of life would be higher if they could age in place in their home communities (AFN 2007; Parrack and Joseph 2007).

Many Aboriginal elderly people require formal support that cannot currently be found on reserve and rely on informal care by family members and friends (AFN 2007; Buchignani and Armstrong-Esther 1999; Hardey et al. 2001; Parrack and Joseph 2007). Needs are intensified because Aboriginal elderly, due to their health status, may require support several years earlier than non-Aboriginal elderly people (Canada 2009). Where informal care is not available or places too great a burden on caregivers, a move to the city may ensue.

In the urban environment, when social connections enable informal care, the elderly may be able to access care that is "authentically Native and the main culturally appropriate way to fulfill the need for care" (Buchignani and Armstrong-Esther 1999, 7). Yet care giving may require skills that informal caregivers do not possess (Joseph et al. 2007), and may produce gender inequality as Aboriginal women, in addition to employment, are forced into multiple domestic roles, including raising children and caring for the elderly (Cranswick and Thomas 2005; Parrack and Joseph 2007). Buchignani and Armstrong-Esther (1999) argue that while one side of informal care is consistency with tradition, another is the neo-liberal agenda. This downloads responsibility and causes crowded conditions and financial and personal stress (Joseph et al. 2007).


The study ran from May 2009 to February 2010. We were guided by LaRocque (2000), who argues for bringing Traditional Knowledge and Western thought into research, and Simpson (2000), who explains that doing this requires adopting strategies such as collaboration, learning by doing, storytelling, and seeking apprenticeship with Elders.

The empirical work consisted of three components. First, seven semi-structured, in-depth interviews (Zeisel 2006) of about one hour's duration were held with Elders in Winnipeg seeking to understand housing issues of elderly Aboriginal people from their perspectives. As Martin-Hill (1995) advises, Elders are the historians, philosophers, leaders and teachers of the community and are consulted for their advice and wisdom. The Elders participating in this study, six women and one man, were identified by ASRC and interviewed at the Kekinan Centre.

Second, a total of 25 semi-structured interviews were held with workers in indigenous organizations, community groups and government offices in Winnipeg, face-to-face; and in other Canadian cities by telephone. Interviews averaged one hour each, and were useful for assessing the level of awareness of the issue and for identifying programs.

Third, three focus groups (Krueger 1988), each lasting about 150 minutes and including 8-12 participants were held in Winnipeg's inner city. Participants were recruited by ASRC, who offered a small honorarium. The recruitment strategy enabled us to conduct the groups expeditiously, though clearly all participants were involved in the ASRC network, which may have limited the range of perspectives. Each group was held at a different location to facilitate access. Participants had lived in Winnipeg anywhere from 6 months to 60 years; the sample consisted of 23 women and 5 men.

In keeping with ASRC practices, most of the interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed through successive readings and a 3-stage coding process (Neuman 1997). The data were read in a reflexive manner (Mason 2000), meaning that we have attempted to form coherent arguments in reporting the data analysis, but understand that other analysts could portray different interpretations of the material. The presentation uses direct quotations from participants, but their names have been changed to pseudonyms or group participant codes to maintain anonymity. The analysis is presented in the following two sections. First, we organize our understanding of participants' lived experience around two categorical indexes (housing and neighbourhood, and supports); second, we provide an analysis of two themes that underlie workers' discussion of policy issues (awareness and responsibility).

Lived experiences of elderly Aboriginal people's urban migration

Most of those interviewed individually or in focus groups are currently living in Winnipeg's North End and broader inner city, in a variety of different housing types, including: apartments, houses, duplexes, income-based housing, assisted living facilities, with family members, and/or in other forms of temporary housing. Typically, moving to the city was not voluntary, but resulted from the need for specialized medical facilities such as dialysis, and in some cases, by the need to live near friends and family for companionship and often for informal care. Most participants said they would prefer to age in place on the reserve:

In the remainder of this section we organize text drawn from the interview and focus group conversations around two broad indexes: housing and neighbourhood; and supports. The importance of housing and neighbourhood is clear because they are present, in different ways, in most of our conversations about migration. The two index areas are closely linked because the benefits of the former can usually only be realized if the latter are in place.

"At least I have a place to live": Images of housing and neighbourhood

Despite their preference to age in place, participants eventually found themselves in the city. The process of migration has usually involved substandard housing. Many described living in places that require major repairs and renovations, which is inconvenient and dangerous for anyone, bur particularly for the elderly, as many have mobility issues, impairments and/or disabilities. Participants also described their housing as unaffordable, and in neighbourhoods that, in many cases, they would not choose.

Overall, housing occupied by many elderly of Aboriginal origin was recognized to be poor:

Some of these places are little rat-holes. It's awful that anyone would have to live there. The stories that come out of these places...They're terrible (Sophie).

A lot of 'affordable' places are infested with mice, roaches, and bedbugs (G2-3).

Many of the places where we might be able to live, where we can afford to live, aren't even liveable (G3-5).

In the words of one Elder:

Of course it's not affordable ... unfortunately ... housing is not affordable in Winnipeg anymore. It used to be. But now, it seems like almost everyone is struggling. And most elderly Aboriginals do not have much money. Many of us (I'm an Elder), do not have any savings, we haven't saved, we don't have a pension, and if we're not careful, we'll have a very limited income as we get older (Grace).

Affordability was seen as the most significant barrier to securing safe housing. Many experience financial difficulty due to low rates or absence of Canada Pension Plan benefits and/or lack of retirement savings. Most have lived pay cheque to pay cheque their entire lives, while never having the luxury to save for the future.

Women, in particular, often found themselves in a difficult situation because pensions, other than Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, are tied to contributions made during the working years, and many spent the majority of these years working in their homes and taking care of their children, making them ineligible for benefits through contributory plans.

Almost all of our local participants mentioned challenges regarding housing affordability in Winnipeg.

Unfortunately, housing in Winnipeg, in general, is not very affordable (Dan).

Many of the affordable housing units are only available to families and people with children. If you are single and living alone, you often have a much harder time. There are very few single, seniors units in the city--let alone single senior units which are geared towards Aboriginal seniors (G2-8).

Participants spoke of housing as an essential part of their lives. While feeling trapped and vulnerable in her substandard flat, Lily said she would be lost without it:

I am cold all the time. It is always freezing in my apartment. But I have been here for 19 years because I feel as though I have no where else to go ... My landlords don't fix anything and I am afraid to ask them to turn up the heat. I am afraid and I am blind. The tiles in my apartment are very loose. I have asked the landlords to fix this many times--but they never do. They actually wrote me a letter saying they would fix the issue right away. That was six months ago. I am so scared to complain because I'm afraid they'll throw me out and I don't know where I'd go (Lily).

One Elder observed that:

Someone has to get rid of the slumlords and the rooming houses. Sure, we need a lot more affordable housing, but we don't need it to be affordable like that. They're dirty and they're not safe, but sometimes our people have nowhere else to go. They have nowhere else to go. But how can that be legal? (Sophie).

The importance of a place to call home, despite its poor condition, came through clearly:

My place is very small. My appliances are quite old and they don't work that well. My door doesn't close properly, which is kind of scary. But whenever I call my landlord, no one ever comes to help me. And I hate calling people and bothering them, but I need help and can't fix these things by myself. But at least I have a place to live (G2-6).

Many participants lived in neighbourhoods they didn't like:

My neighbours, they smoke that funny stuff and they drink and fight --pretty much every night. I'm scared to go out at night. Sometimes I'm scared to go out during the day (G3-4).

I live in the heart of the violence of the North End. I am surrounded by drive-by shootings, parties, death. If I'm going to be out after 10 PM--in and out of my place--I have to take extra precautions. I have to think ahead, even if I'm not going very far. Am I going to be safe? Should I get someone to accompany me? Should I take a cab? I have to think about all of these things. I love my home and my landlord is great, but the neighbourhood isn't the safest (G3-7).

Some participants, however, were satisfied with their housing and neighbourhoods. A long-time resident explained:

I have a nice little home. I've been living in the same house for almost 35 years. It is a two-bedroom house with a living room, kitchen and a big garage. I will stay there until I kick the bucket... I feel like I have security in my home. I live on a quiet street, with good neighbours. I haven't had any real problems, and we all seem to get along very well in my neighbourhood (G2-2).

Another said:

I've worked in the core my whole life and am definitely not afraid of being in the area. My friends are worried about me, but I can't wait to move here. The violence that is happening is happening with people who are living violent lives. I am in the process of getting a kidney transplant and am very excited about having a support system (through the people in the downtown Aboriginal community and the people living in Kekinan), which is not currently available to me in the south end of the city (G3-1).

"This place has been a godsend": Images of supports

In the three focus groups, participants mentioned facing numerous challenges in their migration processes when attempting to secure housing, summarized in Table 1. The obstacles imposed by this array of challenges are particularly difficult given the policy context described above, and suggest the need for assistance and support for migrants.

For some participants, family members or friends facilitated migration by providing shelter, networking, advocacy and other resources. However, some of our participants described 'family issues' as a barrier to securing safe, affordable housing. They noted that a cultural acceptance of family living can prevent elderly people from seeing family as problematic, and from considering other living arrangements. Some participants showed how stresses and hardships of marginalized lives led to conflict and abuse:

You know what's going on a lot ... like a senior lady I know who stays with her family, or actually they stay with her in her home ... when she gets her pension cheque, they take all of it. And there's nothing she can do. She says, 'I never get anything. They take everything'. She is so unhappy at home, but she feels as though there is nothing she can do (Denise).

We had this one couple coming in here last spring....couldn't get a place on account of one of their sons who was living with them ... they got evicted so many times on account of him because he was drinking and bringing friends home and then it spoiled it for the parents. I don't know where they've gone now ... They just sort of disappeared (Rhonda).

Some participants had been able to access formal services during their migration process and were highly appreciative, as these comments about the ASRC suggest:

When I first arrived in the city, I had no idea where to go or what to do. But someone at the Friendship Centre told me about the ASRC, so I thought I'd come check it out. Everyone was really friendly and helped me out a lot. I was living with my sister at the time, but they helped me contact landlords, and eventually helped me find my own place. And now I come to the Centre all the time. We have a nice group of people here. It's great to be able to come here (Tina).

This place [ASRC] has been a godsend to a lot of us in the community--even those who don't live here and have nothing else or no one else. This place does a lot for people (Violet).

In addition, all of the participants currently living in the Kekinan Centre said they are happy with their living arrangements:

I like living in Kekinan. I'm a Treaty Indian and I kind of go towards the Aboriginal culture. I'm comfortable. This place has a feeling of security. There are security guards doing rounds between 11 PM and 7 AM. I have my own bedroom. I have my own facilities. I have a one bedroom. This is a good place. I feel comfortable (G3-2).

We need more Kekinans. I've brought that up so many times. We need more Kekinans because there are a lot of Native people who want to get in here. So, if anyone asks us what we need--that's it (Susan).

According to participants, Kekinan Centre is affordable, culturally-sensitive and is home to the ASRC office. It serves as an example of best-practice housing for elderly Aboriginal people. However, with only 60 units in Kekinan, and approximately 4000 Aboriginal people aged 55+ in Winnipeg (Mulligan 2007), this centre only begins to fill the need.

Workers' views

Our interviews with workers participating in the study centred around 15 open-ended questions, and two underlying themes permeated the discussions: awareness of the housing needs of elderly people of Aboriginal origin in cities; and the question of responsibility for meeting these needs.

Workers who participated in this study came from a variety of professional backgrounds and cities. They were members of indigenous organizations, community groups, housing providers and/or government agencies. National participants were initially identified through their affiliation with their local Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Winnipeg participants were identified through their work with Aboriginal seniors and/or affordable housing provision.

Workers consistently emphasised that there is an urgent need to meet the deficit of safe, affordable housing for Aboriginal seniors in Winnipeg and throughout Canada's urban centres. Securing a decent place to live is difficult, even impossible for many, because of availability and affordability, as well as other compounded barriers including racism:

You know, I hate to say it, but racism is still a huge barrier for our elderly. I have spoken with several seniors who feel they were denied a place to live because of landlords who pre-judged them because they were Aboriginal. And even if they do get the apartment or whatever, they feel as though someone is always watching them and waiting for them to do something wrong (Sylvia).

Me need

In a number of cities, workers were aware of some appropriate housing supply, but bemoaned its scarcity. Tanya said: "There are no residences here dedicated solely to Aboriginal seniors." Sylvia added:

The hospital is a really great support. But other than that, they don't really have a separate 'seniors' centre' per se. There are the [name] housing units. These units are only a few years old, and were designed specifically for homeless seniors. So, there's that place. And it seems to be doing really well and is helping a lot of people. But again, there are only a limited number of units in that facility. We need more--a lot more (Sylvia).

Workers in Friendship Centres provide referrals to housing providers, but lament their incapacity to do more:

Mostly we refer our seniors to housing providers and non-profit organizations, but I don't think any of them have residences where it's just Aboriginal seniors.... But that would be great.... They would just feel safer and more comfortable and at ease around their own people (Grace).

Comments from across Canada describe the need for a concept similar to that of the ASRC, a support centre that focuses primarily on the needs and care of elderly Aboriginal people.

Workers suggested that some communities are actively dealing with the issues, but the majority stated that the issue is not being addressed in their urban centres. Some, while acutely aware that their facilities were far from fulfilling the need, spoke with appreciation of what they had been able to do towards providing culturally appropriate services:

Our Human Services Program would have to be the most successful program in regards to housing provision for Aboriginal seniors. Not only is this program about getting the elders off the street and into safe homes, but it's all about the follow-up. How are these people doing? How is the transition going? What do they need to make the transition as easy as possible? Are they getting enough human interaction? The thing with Aboriginal seniors, especially, is that they love to be visited and engage in conversation. They love to talk and talk and talk. They love having people around. So, we try our best to not only make sure they have a roof over their heads, but to also ensure they always have someone they feel comfortable talking to and someone who they can go to for help and assistance in times of need (Samantha).

The responsibility

While needs around housing for elderly Aboriginal people were consistently recognized, responsibility for acting on them was seen in different ways, reflecting the multiple influences identified in the policy context section above. Some demanded that the federal government act; others placed the blame at the provincial level. The confounding complexity of responsibility involves Aboriginal organizations as well:

As you move from the reserve into the city, you are given the runaround from all forms of government (bands, provincial, federal) and you receive lesser and lesser supports. Where is this money going? ... We need to ensure our leaders are being held accountable for this funding (Sylvia).

Some workers expressed frustration with what their bands had been able to achieve:

Several local bands have discussed the need to fight for an increase in urban housing for their elders--but, at this point in time--this only appears to be 'talk'. I want to see these words turned into action (Pamela).

Many feel that government officials are simply passing responsibility from one level of authority to another, while failing to increase the number of affordable housing units in the country for elderly Aboriginal people and more broadly. However, in some cases, workers expressed an individualistic perspective on responsibility, reflecting the neoliberal policy climate:

Many Aboriginal people have significant financial issues. Seniors are especially ill-prepared for retirement. Many have not saved and only worked pay cheque to pay cheque over the years. Then they retire and are faced with an extremely hard and difficult reality (Eleanor).

Clearly many Aboriginal elderly people were not in jobs that would enable the build-up of retirement funds during their working years, and individualistic solutions fit poorly with both Aboriginal communities and many other groups.

Some workers saw a way out of the morass of unplaced responsibility by calling for local Aboriginal autonomy, leaving a door open for band involvement in the urban communities:

If we want to improve the housing situation for this demographic, the plans and the power and the initiative all need to come from within ... It needs to be based on community-based organizations. Housing projects need to be started and run by those who are involved with the community on a daily basis.(Eleanor).

Funding for programming, as well as capital costs, is essential if elderly Aboriginal people's housing needs are to be met:

We have to quit cancelling programming. What good is a brand new building if all the funding for programming is cut? .... Yes, it's great if we can build these brand new places for elders to live when they come to the city--but then we also have to realize that they will hopefully be here for awhile, and how do we help make it as smooth a transition as possible? How do we make them feel comfortable, safe and happy living in an urban centre? That's where the programming comes into play (Harry).

Comments similar to Harry's were shared throughout the interviews. Workers want to see action; they do not want 'quick-fixes'. They want an increase in housing units, complete with programming and services that not only support the elderly, but ensure that their transition into the urban centre is as comfortable as possible and culturally sensitive.

Conclusions and recommendations

Many elderly people of Aboriginal origin have migrated from reserves to cities in Canada. Most have moved due to a lack of medical services or supportive care; others come to the city to be near friends and relatives. The process presents a litany of challenges, and the supports and services that could ease it are woefully inadequate. Migrants experience difficult housing situations: low quality, unaffordable and even dangerous accommodation; as well as racism, isolation and social marginalization. Participants residing in Winnipeg's inner city spoke of suffering a litany of problems and barriers, and participants working with indigenous programs and policy in cities across the country were acutely aware of these issues.

For reasons of cultural sensitivity, and in many instances poverty, specialized residential facilities and support services are required. Housing and services provided by ASRC and Kekinan were seen as exemplars by workers not only in Winnipeg, but across the country. It is our first recommendation that more such facilities be developed both in Winnipeg and in other cities.

The success of existing facilities has depended on the intimate knowledge about communities of elderly people, both in cities and on reserves, which has guided their conceptualization, development and operation. It follows that the creation of other facilities must also draw on such knowledge. This, in turn, would suggest important roles for Aboriginal organizations both in cities and in First Nations communities. Therefore, we recommend further that Aboriginal communities and their organizations must be autonomous in shaping and defining specific developments. This calls for urban governance that involves new forms of relationships between state and Aboriginal organizations, as are now beginning to emerge (Belanger and Walker 2009).

While the knowledge base needed for the development of more facilities for elderly, urban Aboriginal people is at hand, under-funding has been a consistent barrier. Reluctance of the state to finance services, characteristic of the neo-liberal policy climate, takes the form of uncertainty in terms of responsibility, perpetuating the suffering of elderly Aboriginal migrants. This underscores the urgency of federal government developing a national housing strategy that would meet the needs of elderly people of Aboriginal origin, as well as those of others whose needs the market is incapable of serving.

Finally, in addition to extending the provision of housing and services for elderly people of Aboriginal origin in the cities, attention must be given to developing facilities that would enable them to age in place on the reserve. This recommendation is justified on two grounds. It would increase the quality of life of individuals, such as many of the participants in this study. It would also help community development in Aboriginal communities by fostering intergenerational relationships.


Funding from the Manitoba Research Alliance and the Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat is gratefully acknowledged. We appreciate the support of elders, residents and professional workers who guided us through the research process, and thank Helen Agger for her valuable advice and assistance. The comments of two anonymous reviewers and the editor's suggestions were helpful in strengthening the paper.


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Lauren Lange and Ian Skelton

Department of City Planning

University of Manitoba

Thelma Meade

Aboriginal Senior Resource Centre
I really want to move back home, up North. I know everyone back
   home. I would have lots of company, all the time. I would feel more
   at home. Here, in the city, I feel all alone (Bernice).

   If I could, I would go back to the reserve in a heartbeat--it will
   always be my home (G3-7).

Table 1. Participants' Housing Challenges

Apartments require large down
Discrimination and racism
Language barriers
Needing a co-signer to sign a lease
No clear explanation of rental
No credit history
No rental history
Waiting lists
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