A Broken System

Editor’s note: Attawapiskat is a First Nation community located in northern Ontario, Canada, at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River at James Bay. It has been in the news as the community grapples with a housing crisis.

In Attawapiskat, people are living in sheds without proper heating, electricity, or running water, and the -40 degree winter is just around the corner. As a nurse living in there, I have visited other Native communities with similar conditions. I have been in homes where a family of five shares a single mattress in a shed; homes where there is no running water or sewer system, and electricity is run from the house next door.

It’s Not the Houses

The first time I went to a reserve I was shocked by conditions that reminded me of Third World countries I had visited. The housing conditions, welfare dependency, and cycles of abuse, suicide, and drug and alcohol use overwhelmed me. How could this happen in Canada?

Seeking answers, I learned about the background of residential schools, broken treaties, and a history of Anglo North Americans oppressing Native people. I was overcome with guilt for my sinful attitude. Even though I haven’t personally abused a Native child, I and my fellow Anglo North Americans are responsible for the atrocities Native people experienced. But when we communicate the idea that we are able to fix someone else’s problem, we present an attitude of white superiority.

The housing problem in Attawapiskat, I discovered, is not just a housing problem. It is one external manifestation of a system that is broken, one stress on a relationship that is strained and deeply needs healing.

A Call to Action

So what’s to be done? Jesus calls me to love my neighbor as myself. Judging by the amount of time and money that I spend on myself, that standard of caring is high. If we all truly did what Jesus commands, what would this world look like for all North Americans?

I believe Jesus modeled the answer. He cared for people, spent time with them, listened to them, ate with them, and built relationships with them. Seeking to do likewise, I have learned a lot from listening to my neighbors’ stories and have enjoyed sharing the laughs that come with their great sense of humor.


Canada’s relationship with the Native population is strained, but not broken.

While Canada’s relationship with the Native population is strained, it is not broken. I have met many people who hope for greater healing to come to this relationship. So how can you participate in this healing?

  • Reflect on your attitude toward your Native neighbors, whether you are in Canada or in the U.S. Does it reflect the heart of Jesus? Challenge any stereotypes you may have.
  • Educate yourself and other people on Native history and the present issues that exist in Native communities.
  • Value Native followers of Jesus as we unite to be the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:21).
  • Encourage the government to make Native issues a priority and dialogue with communities by listening, and then working with them to achieve community goals.
  • Partner with Native Christian organizations as they address both immediate physical needs and the long-term healing and reconciliation that require us to walk alongside our neighbors.

Rather than arouse pity for Native people, I hope this housing crisis creates awareness that transforms our attitudes. I hope it calls us to see Native people through the eyes of Jesus as our neighbors, but also as our brothers and sisters. I hope you get to experience the blessing and joy I have discovered in this work.

About the Author

Heather Kooiman is a nurse at the hospital in Attawapiskat.

See comments (4)


Heather, I have mixed feelings about your characterizations of some homes on a reserve. On the one hand, it is sad that the conditions are so primitive. On the other hand, primitive conditions by themselves are somewhat relative to what we are accustomed to. Many of our grandparents or greatgrandparents lived for a time in places without a phone, or without running water. Many settlers in the 1800s did not have power. Yet they lived happily and securely, using wood or coal for heating, and oil for lamps. Happier without TVs, and managing with horses and oxen for transportation.

The problem with aboriginals living in primitive conditions, and borrowing power from the neighbor, or using the old familiar outhouse (which even I personally have experienced as a young child for a couple years), is not so much the actual conditions, as it is the lack of desire or ambition or ability to contribute in a meaningful way to their family or to society.

Ultimately blaming someone else, such as your ancestors, or the whites, or the government, for your own lack of ambition, for your own lack of caring for your family, is a loser's game. This is the real bottom-line problem.

I have been involved with a very poor family, who still takes joy in relationships and responsibility for the children (and swore off alcohol). I have been and still am involved with aboriginals who have been ambitious and taken training and employment, and have done well. And with others who have fallen down on their responsibility when younger, but acknowledged their need to change their lifestyle, and improved their life and their attitude (even though still poor). And with some who are still struggling with their addictions, but realize it is only they themselves who can make the difference.

As long as people look at it as "Canada's relationship with aboriginals", the problem will not go away. It is not about Canada's relationship with aboriginals. It is about the aboriginal's relationship with their children, and with themselves. (Just like it is for all the rest of us.) Those aboriginals who have figured that out, are generally making progress.

In our church, several families have adopted five aboriginal children, among a total of 14 adopted children. I think this is a practical way of helping the aboriginals who were not able to solve their own problems in time to raise their own children. But it is not a long term solution for long time problems and issues of a large part of the aboriginal population.
Some aboriginal bands are now owning hotels and businesses (and unfortunately casinos), and they have opportunities to learn and work and manage, if their desire is there. The oil industry has no problem hiring aboriginals with a good work ethic, and even makes allowances for those with problems. And they will make really good money. Opportunities exist.

I don't think Mr. Zylstra writes maliciously. Yet his comment perpetuates harmful misinformation about Natives.

1.) We're not as backward as Mr. Zylstra seems to think. When our relatives live in sheds, or without water, and electricity, things most of modern society takes for granted, we do know what we're missing. It’s not the 1800s anymore, and no one lives comfortably without these items today. And no one should have to in a modern democracy, where these basic needs are so easy, and so inexpensive to provide. Natives simply want equality, the same freedom and opportunity everyone else enjoys. Chief Joseph said it best: “Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself — and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.” He said that nearly two hundred years ago, and not much has progressed in the policies that define reservations since then. We are not happier without the same access to the same health care, and basic human rights that all other citizens of the North American nations enjoy.

2.) What Mr. Zylstra says about Natives lacking ambition or ability to contribute to their families and societies is ludicrous racism at its finest. We value our families above almost anything else. Protecting our family, encouraging them, ensuring the hope of their future, is something most Natives strive for. Nearly every Native I’ve ever known would share anything they had with their family, or any guest under their roof. Even if it was their last piece of bread, or last stitch of a blanket. As far as society goes, we have people working in every profession from medicine to the arts. Many of us want education, and seek it, in order to better ourselves, our tribes, and our countries. We’re business owners. We’re construction laborers. We’re teachers. We’re doctors. We probably have some representation in every career field. Given the opportunity to contribute to society, we thrive. We’re only asking for what nearly every other citizen gets by virtue of not being born on a reservation.

3.) I know of no one who blames ancestors, whites, or the government for their lack of caring for their family. Most of us do manage to care for our families, despite how much the deck is stacked against us.

4.) The problem is Canada’s relationship with aboriginals. Every problem you see on a reservation has some roots in inter-generational traumas, unjust policy, a government sanctioned eradication of culture. To ignore this is to be willfully blind.

5.) Christian seizure of Native children, first in the boarding schools, then through adoption, is one of the cruelest injustices ever undertaken. This is an atrocious thing to advocate. There is not enough space in 600 words to explain this, so I refer everyone to read more, look up “Native American boarding schools”, look up current seizure of Native children from their families with no basis but bigoted assumptions.

6.) Mr. Zylstra’s comment about Natives joining the oil industry is demonstrative of his ignorance about us. The devastation things such as strip mining and tar sand leeching bring is utterly antithetical to the Native philosophy of the sacredness of creation. This is why tribes throughout the entire North American continent were so adamantly opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline running across their lands. Opportunities may exist there, but they go against many Natives worldview.

Thank you Heather, and Tom,
Heather for your commitment and wisdom to change attitudes in what is a complex and multi-dimensional inter-generational issue.
Tom thank you for your straightforward response to what is an unhelpful attitude. Christ asks us to be with the poor in spirit not to stand waiting for them to pull up there bootstraps.
A good place to start is to listen. Having attended one truth and reconciliation hearings happening across Canada (http://www.trc.ca/) my ears and heart were opened to the complexity of the brokenness. Attend one if you can!

Tom and Heather, I echo Josh and say thank-you for your words. Mr. Zylstra, I respectfully disagree with your position that it is “lack of desire or ambition” that prevents native peoples from “contributing meaningfully to their family or to society.” As Tom says, “the deck is stacked against” native peoples.

Speaking from my experience working at a shelter in Toronto, cultural homelessness has created literal homelessness. As Tom and Heather both acknowledged, the Indian Act of 1876, residential schools, and the child welfare system were systematic attempts to destroy the cultures of the native peoples. We continue to reel from the effects: despite the fact that only around 4% of the population in Canada self-identify as aboriginal, they are vastly over-represented in the homeless population: in the shelter system, more than 15% are aboriginal and sleeping outdoors, nearly 30% are aboriginal. Outdoor homelessness is arguably the most disenfranchised type of homelessness. (Stats Canada, 2009; Toronto Shelter, Support & Housing 2009).

Canada’s housing strategy to “fix” this homelessness problem seems to be incarceration: according to the 2006 Canadian Census, upwards of 20% of those sitting in our prison system self-identified as aboriginal (Stats Canada, 2009). What is important to recognize about these stats is not the precise numbers, but that the current social context has enormous implications. Once a person has been incarcerated, they have a criminal record that they carry with them for at least four years, and employers won’t hire them during this time. If a person can’t pay the minimum fee of $490 to apply for a pardon—which, if this person can’t work, is nearly impossible-- their criminal record will follow them for much longer than 4 years, continuing their unemployability. When you say, “Opportunities exist”, this might be true, but it is certainly hard to access these opportunities when the political context cuts you off from them.

The evidence and my experience teaches me that an individual can not make their life better simply by trying harder when socio-political context is so unfair. A position that puts the onus for change squarely on the individual can too easily lead to internalized cycles of shame and pain, which does not promote healing. External forces created the problems facing native peoples, and it is these same external forces that need to change. Although there are no easy solutions, we can start by listening to what native peoples are saying, and support them in changing these systems.