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.