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'Leave Your Shoes On'

Looking for 'home improvement' ideas? Tour the Olsen's family friendly compound on the Tsartlip Reserve.

Thelma Fayle 7 Feb 2012TheTyee.ca

Thelma Fayle has been published widely including by The Globe and Mail, Reader's Digest, CBC.ca, the Times Colonist and Senior Living.

Photojournalist Ted Grant's many well known shots include Pierre Trudeau sliding down the banister in the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. His 280,000 photos are housed in the Canadian National Archives. His website is here.

"Twenty-two kids were raised in that house," Joni Olsen says, pointing to an elegant painting of a rickety building.

"My great-grandmother put it on a piece of land overlooking the Malahat and raised 10 kids in that one bedroom farmhouse. My grandmother was given the house and she also had 12 kids. My Dad was born there."

The richly detailed tribute hangs above the family-computer desk with a backdrop of a vibrant, tangerine-coloured wall -- obviously a place of honour, and the ancestral heart of Joni's half of the duplex.

"Leave your shoes on," Joni says as she extends a friendly welcome to the home that has been in her family for over 40 years. "And feel free to snoop around as much as you like."

Joni Olsen belongs to the Tsartlip First Nation and lives on Tsartlip Reserve on Vancouver Island's Saanich peninsula. If you take Olsen up on her invitation to walk through the door into her family home, you not only enter a realm that defies the media's stereotype of Aboriginal housing as substandard and bleak, but you learn through conversation some of the obstacles that keep First Nations people from improving their homes in simple ways that most Canadians would take for granted.

The double-wide trailer set up by Olsen's parents in the 1970s has morphed into three buildings: a duplex, a cabin and a "shack," creating a three-quarter acre compound that is currently home to 11 family members.

The piano in the large living room of the renovated duplex has "always been there" and the room is filled with many chairs. The space leads to a big yard, perfect for summer barbeques. "All 35 of our immediate family can be very comfortable when visiting here," Joni says.

"She is the kind of cook who can feed large groups of people and they feel nourished from her food," says Sylvia Olsen, Joni's mother and well-known author of Working with Wool: A Coast Salish Legacy and the Cowichan Sweater. "But her meals are not haute cuisine," Sylvia adds.

"When my mum moved out 10 years ago, I decided the house needed renovating," says Joni. "I do catering and hair styling and have an annual wreath-making business and needed storage and workspace and a large laundry room. We designed and built around our family needs."

"My husband is a musician, so we built a sound-proof place for him to play. My daughter is eight and also has a natural gift for music; she likes to sing Patsy Cline and Cat Stevens music."

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Piano room. Photo: Ted Grant.

The young girl has a large shell collection spread on the table beneath her bunk bed and her colourful room accommodates her activities and her privacy; hence the "no boys allowed" sign.

Expensive and trendy new countertops or the latest home decorating fashions do not factor into this house tour. "When we rebuilt the house we put in a wood stove with a cooktop in case there is ever an earthquake," Joni mentions as we move from room to room, with her youngest toddler trailing along.

The land was 'never scraped'

"My husband is a landscaper, and when he was recently putting in a hedge for someone off-reserve, he put his shovel into the ground and almost immediately hit clay."

"When you build off-reserve they bring in an excavator and shovel off the topsoil from the whole property. The buildings on-reserve were never scraped that way," Joni says. "At one time, on this property, there were chickens and an old orchard and there are still two pear trees that are 100 years old. If you put a shovel in the back yard here, you come up with beautiful topsoil and thick, rich soil."

One building on the property is fondly referred to as "the shack."

"That shack has stored lawn mowers and bikes and people; and now houses our home office," says Adam Olsen, Joni's brother and a city counselor for Central Saanich.

"The first person to live in the shack was a homeless man named Ed Hale. He converted the shed into a place to live. It provided him a home and he used our house and ate with us and used our bathroom and shower and babysat us and helped raise us. He was poor and was supporting his own family."

"My stepsister lived in the shack, Joni lived in the shack, I lived in the shack, my brother Joachim, cousins Doug, Harris, and Denver, among others. We were raised to have an open door," Adam says.

"People loved living there," says Joni. "We have a line up of people who want to live in that small space," she says.

"And yet it is really nothing special," Adam adds.

The third building, "the cabin," is used by Adam, his wife Emily, and their young son. The cabin was once formerly the space for his parent's two businesses, Mount Newton Indian Sweaters and Mount Newton Gardening.

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Family cabin in back of main home. Photo: Ted Grant.

"My dad built it with a concrete floor, un-insulated, and it was usually filled with between 100-200 sweaters, hanging in rows alongside big bags of wool for the First Nations knitters. My mum zippered the sweaters and packaged them and boxed them to take down to Greyhound buses for delivery. A lot of families fed themselves with that sweater business," says Adam.

"My sisters, Joni and Heather and I would play hockey in there as a kids," Adam says, "and now, the same space is our home, where Emily and I are raising our son."

When it comes to building or renovating, one of the challenges for families on-reserve, is getting a mortgage. Technically, families do not "own" the land. Reserves are kept in trust by the federal government for the use of Aboriginal people.

The Bank of Montreal does lend on-reserve, with a band counsel resolution; but the counsel must support the decision and commit to backing the mortgage. So there can be some controversial politics involved.

"Life is like that for everyone," says Adam, "but in a small community it can be magnified. Our families have known and lived with one another for generations."

Adam and Emily took a $45,000 mortgage to add a room to the sweater cabin after they had a child. The boy spent most of his first year in his parent's room and now has an adjoining bedroom, linked with a small metre-high door. When the child wakes up he can climb through his door to be with his parents.

Adam points to a loft in their new master bedroom. "This was a surprise for my wife," he says. "From time to time she likes to spread photos and stamps over our living room and kitchen and they will be there for two weeks; so when we were building the addition, I took the builder aside and asked him to put a loft up there. I never go up there, and it is her private space," says Adam.

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Loft in master bedroom. Photo: Ted Grant.

The walls are full of family pictures. Among them, a series of shots of their grandfather's prized dahlias and a close-up picture of their grandparents' hands, framed and titled "61 years." It was a wedding present to Adam and Emily.

"We have had our struggles as siblings as every family does. There are many agendas on this three-quarters-of-an-acre lot; but we have learned to coexist. We watch each other's kids as they are out jumping through the sprinkler, or making 'yuckiest stew' -- a yard bucket with all sorts of stuff in it."

Hard work doesn't convert to financial equity

"Our home is wonderful but we have to make the most of it because we cannot use our hard work as collateral or equity to take to the next step in life. The property across the street is worth $650,000 but ours has no commercial value other than a certificate of possession -- which is not a deed."

"I am involved with lots of new houses that get built in our Tsartlip community, and unlike the brand new off-reserve homes, our homes evolve in a way that is more linked to the needs of our families," Adam says.

"I am beginning to see strength in a growing capacity in our community to think about building to suit our evolving needs," he says.

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The family complex comprises a grouping of buildings and common outdoor areas. Photo: Ted Grant.

"We love growing our own vegetables," says Joni. They grow broccoli, beets, celery, carrots squash, cucumber, strawberries, cherries and apples. They also did a crop of tomatoes in green houses last year.

"There is lots of heavy work here, but I love it," says Adam, who has lived on the reserve for 32 of his 35 years.

"We are planning on making an outdoor kitchen with a fireplace pit and a cob oven. We all take part in our property."

"Seeing the people move in and out of houses off-reserve is strange to me. I wonder how a friend, who moved here from Scotland, could leave the land that his family has been on for generations," says Adam. "Brand new, off-reserve houses feel different and even smell different to me."

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Painting of the original home that stood where today's family complex exists. Photo: Ted Grant.

Sylvia Olsen calls the family compound "a different sort of housing" that allows its inhabitants to keep in touch with their roots and their people's aspirations.

"I brought my children up to be activists," says Sylvia Olsen, "and they are living well in my view. I have reminded them that while it is important to read and write in life, it is equally important to look around and touch and wonder about our surroundings. They are doing that with their lives."

The high-functioning Olsen home will not be featured in an architectural magazine or considered beautiful by 2012 advertising standards; but it is a home, in the very richest sense of the word.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Housing

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