Sylvia McAdam is not one to back down from a human rights fight.
A co-founder of the Idle No More grassroots Indigenous advocacy movement that spread across Canada in 2012, McAdam, a member of the nêhiyaw or Cree nation, has since turned her attention to logging on territory covered by the nation’s Treaty Six with Canada.
Signed in 1876, Treaty Six was the result of the plains’ First Nations, mostly Cree, asking for help in a period of extreme hardship due to the loss of buffalo from settler overhunting, and the latter’s introduction of smallpox.
The treaty encompasses most of Saskatchewan and Alberta and a small portion of Manitoba, but disagreement continues today over whether the signatory tribes knowingly gave up their rights to those territories, as there is no concept of land ownership in Cree language or culture.
McAdam takes an expansive view of the treaty and for much of the last two years, she says, has “been out on the land, trying to prevent the government from taking the trees in violation of our right to hunt, gather, and fish. Because once you take the trees, it changes the land. Without trees, where do we hunt?”
In 2015 McAdam ran for chief of her Big River First Nation band to challenge the sitting council’s decision to sign away logging rights on its territory without consulting its members. She lost, but it was while door knocking on the Big River reserve during her campaign that she met a man living in exceptionally dire straits.
“He literally dug a hole in the ground and put some boards together, and had been living there for about 16 years,” she said. “I don’t know how he made it through each winter.”
McAdam pledged her help and, along with other leaders from the Idle No More movement, created an IndieGoGo campaign under the name One House, Many Nations, to raise funds to build the man a home. They raised $35,000 in October 2015, and with help from custom mini home manufacturing company Mini Homes of Manitoba, they built and delivered a 140 square-foot home to the man in less than three months.
Although the gentleman wishes to remain anonymous, McAdam said, he could “be anyone on any First Nation, because the housing issue is such an epidemic problem.”
McAdam speaks about her work today (Friday, March 24) at an event honouring her as winner of the 2016 Margolese National Design for Living Prize. The award is given by the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, for “outstanding contributions to the development or improvement of living environments for Canadians of all economic classes.”
The Tyee caught up with McAdam by phone, to find out where the One House, Many Nations project — and her passions — are now.
What’s happened with One House, Many Nations since you built the mini home?
We are in the process of fundraising again, and we are moving forward with another build, and from my understanding it will be highlighted at an event in September. But I can’t give the details right now.
How did you decide who would get this next house?
We’re still going to talk about that, but it just breaks my heart so many Indigenous people are homeless... One of my grandfathers through my kinship line just passed away here this week, and he died homeless. And yet in our own territories, trees are taken, made into lumber, sold to different countries, and we subsidize that because these trees are taken in violation of treaty. Nowhere in that treaty does it say that we cede and surrender anything, especially resources.
I saw a poster online that looked like One House, Many Nations is using recycled materials to build tiny homes. Is that right?
Yeah, we’re still working on that with a gentleman by the name of Jacob Mans. When he first contacted us, he was a student at Harvard, and now he is [an architecture] professor in Minnesota. And he’s still working with us so that we can make a build that is Indigenous, instead of the European notion of shelter. How that’s going to look, we’re still working on it.
Are you open to doing different kinds of homes or just mini homes?
If we’re going to address homelessness, we can’t disregard solutions that don’t fit our perception of what a home should look like. We’re open to looking at different kinds of homes. The mini home that we gave to the gentleman here on my reserve, that works for him.
I’m on the land a lot. For me [a mini home] would work. With the mini home that we built, there was a wood stove that could generate electricity. So when I go out to the land, I have access to electricity — otherwise I couldn’t. These are places of isolation and are miles away from anyone.
As you probably know, the federal government is doing a review of housing on reserves. What would you like to see change?
I would like to see the government honour the treaties, because shelter is a treaty term and promise, and so is land. There should not be an issue of poverty and homelessness for Indigenous people, especially with Treaty Six: every family of five, more or less, is supposed to get one square mile, and shelter with that, plus agricultural assistance. And those treaty terms and promises are unfulfilled.
What would you like to see change about the quality or types of housing on reserve?
[Housing materials on reserve] are inadequate or the cheapest that can be bought. Then you get people like my brother; he is disabled. But I had to pay for his bathroom to be renovated to suit his needs, and they knew at the time he got his house that he was disabled, but didn’t build it to suit him. There are huge issues in terms of housing on reserve.
What’s the ultimate goal of One House, Many Nations?
To bring attention to homelessness, not just on reserve but for all people. Shelter is a human right. Canada is a wealthy colonial state. We shouldn’t have homelessness; that should not be an issue.
And we see that again with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal where I just read that their decision is not binding. It’s not enforceable for them to dictate how the federal government spends money. How do we enforce these laws that we keep turning to, and yet now we’re being told they’re not enforceable? [At least] that’s the information that we’re getting.
What are you going to say on March 24?
I’m one of many people who is house-less, and I’m not the only one. There are far too many people who are dealing with this issue, even though in the United Nations there is a human right to shelter.
I have a [unfinished] shelter on the land, which I’m getting a warning to move out of. There’s a burial ground there, there’s about 1,000 of my people buried on that land. My brother and I started moving material over there to begin building, and then we get a warning from Parks Canada saying that we can’t build there, that we needed to move our material, or there’ll be consequences. And yet these were lands that my people have been on before any white people came there, before any treaty.
There’s a long history that is connected to that land when it comes to my people. I don’t want to leave, I grew up on those lands, and the way that [Parks Canada are] asserting their authority and their jurisdiction over those lands is problematic.
Is this land part of the reserve?
No. Reserve lands are an Indian Act construct. What I’m talking about are treaty lands that are off reserve, and these are the hunting lands and also the burial ground.
The Margolese prize comes with $50,000. Do you have plans for that money?
It’s really hard for me to find employment after Idle No More. People are a little hesitant. I’ve been called too political. So right now I’m even unemployed, with my law degree [from University of Saskatchewan]. So it’s helping with some of the bills, but I really would like to get a shelter if that’s possible.
When you call it a shelter, what does that look like?
That’s why I call it a shelter, I don’t know what it’s going to look like! [Laughs]
What’s next for you?
I’ll just continue on with Idle No More and One House, Many Nations campaign. But I also would like to bring attention to the violence against women. I think that needs more attention. And I think men need to begin talking about that. It can’t just be the women.
Another thing is when you look at homelessness, there are higher rates of homelessness for LGBQT people, and I think when you take a look at how patriarchy, misogyny, and colonialism have impacted all people, they’re especially impacted. They’re not accepted in society, and there are higher rates of suicide, higher rates of homelessness, and that’s just so unacceptable in this day and age that these things are continuing to be perpetuated.