Newsletter: How many governments run housing programs for a specific race of people?

I asked Sylvia Olsen what surprised her most when she studied First Nations housing on reserve

When Sylvia Olsen wrote her PhD dissertation about First Nations housing, Making Poverty: A History of On-reserve Housing Programs, 1930-1996, she said she made it a point not to seek solutions. Instead, she sought to trace the history of the federal government’s involvement in First Nations housing.

I sat with Olsen at her home in Victoria and asked her why she chose to focus on this specific topic, and what she found.

Sylvia Olsen, author of PhD thesis about First Nations housing on reserve.

Wawmeesh Hamilton: What compelled you to choose First Nations housing on reserve as the subject for you thesis?

Sylvia Olsen: I was in Shuswap doing some policy work. I was giving a presentation to chief and council. Before, I was teaching a pilot education piece for Vancouver Island University and I was talking to housing managers; I realized I was a historian and I didn’t know the history of these programs and I didn’t even know what they are, and I’ve been in this business for a long time.

So, I’m talking to chiefs and councils, and there’s the chief down the end of the table. I’m talking about the housing program they’re trying to manage. I started seeing him get redder and redder, and his neck getting bigger and bigger. Gets that way when he doesn’t like what you’re saying. He shouted “Fuck — why don’t we know this? Why doesn’t everybody know what you’re saying?” Later, in the car, my son said, “I guess you’re going back to school.”

What was the main finding of your thesis?

I would say that [First Nations] people don’t have control of their own housing decisions; there is no way to make that work. So, if we’re going to make anything work, that’s the first thing. All the fixes in the world just perpetuate the problem because — all the fixes that aren’t the structural pieces — all the other fixes just make it appear that the thing can be fixed. It’s more of a problem than not fixing it at all.

What surprised you while writing your thesis?

So, when you’re studying your on-reserve housing and you do your lit [literature] review, there is no lit on on-reserve housing. So I didn’t do a lit review about on-reserve housing because there’s five or six things that only marginally deal with it.

So what I did is I did an “ideas review” because there’s some fundamental ideas that we need to think about with housing on reserves, and we don’t use these ideas when we look at on-reserve housing. One of them that is crucial to on-reserve housing is the idea that government control of housing for a whole people, for decades and decades.

How did you reach that conclusion?

What does the world of housing think about a housing program that is 100 per cent government-designed and implemented for a specific race of people over a long period of time?

What you find is that: one, that just doesn’t happen in the Western world; it doesn’t happen really in any world. So if it doesn’t happen, then it is fundamentally a mistake.

This interview was edited for length.

My personal reflection on the recent story I wrote about what reconciliation looks like in Port Alberni. The story was part of a four-part series on small town reconciliation by Discourse Media and CBC Indigenous.

Why do you think there’s been so little academic research on #FirstNationsHousing, besides Sylvia Olsen’s work? What should we do about it? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.


  • The Canadian federal government gave a glimpse at its plan, including spending on reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, in its recent budget. You can read it here.
  • In a February National Post piece, Canadian commentator and writer Colby Cosh shares his unique brand of edgy wit on the renaming of a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, bridge.
  • The Port Coquitlam Public Library has published a recommended reading list for reconciliation. You can find selections in adult nonfiction and fiction, as well as children and teens categories. [end]


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