Remembering Don McBain, Housing Champion and Team Leader

Tributes for a visionary Indigenous advocate who helped thousands find homes.

By Katie Hyslop 11 Oct 2017 |

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

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‘What also made him important in our world is he also understood our community.’ Photo courtesy Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.

The same week this past September when Don McBain passed away after a brief battle with cancer, construction started on the 20-unit transitional housing program in Sioux Lookout, Ont. that McBain had spent a year working to get off the ground.

With close to 100 per cent of the community’s homeless population identifying as Indigenous, McBain, executive director of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, brought together the municipality, provincial health authority and friendship centre to establish housing with 24-7 services and supports for people otherwise released from hospital or detox facilities into homelessness.

This project is just one example of McBain’s talent for collaboration in creating housing options for urban and rural Indigenous communities, said Justin Marchand, acting executive director of OAHS.

“He always believed in bringing together people from different or related sectors [and] organizations to work on solutions that meet everyone’s needs,” said Marchand, describing his former boss of eight years as “such a positive person” and “a visionary.”

McBain first came to my attention at the 2015 Indigenous pre-caucus of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association conference. He possessed a wealth of knowledge on the expiring operating agreements facing off-reserve Indigenous housing units across Canada.

The Tyee’s Housing Fix project showcased one innovative OAHS project as a solution for low-income singles, single-parent families and elders. McBain also presented at and participated in The Tyee Solutions Society’s one-day Actions for Housing Now workshop in Ottawa in February 2016.

I was far from alone in recognizing McBain’s encyclopedia-like knowledge of off-reserve housing policies and projects, past and present.

“If there was anything to characterize Don, it’s he understood Indigenous housing,” said Marc Maracle, executive director of Gignul Non-Profit Housing Corp. in Ottawa. He knew McBain for at least 25 years.

“He was a corporate memory to me, as well as a wealth of information because he had come from such a strong housing background.”

Outside of football — which McBain pursued as both a player and then president of the National Football Conference’s Sault Steelers in his home town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. — Indigenous housing was McBain’s passion.

In 1992, McBain, then manager of the property management division of the Ontario Métis Aboriginal Association, represented his organization at province-wide consultations on Indigenous housing solutions off-reserve.

It was in collaboration with Sylvia Maracle (no relation to Marc), executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and eventual OAHS board chair, that Don created OAHS in 1994 to transfer control of Indigenous housing from the province to Indigenous people.

Today OAHS owns and manages over 2,000 units of off-reserve housing for Indigenous people, the largest off-reserve Indigenous housing provider in the country. It also delivers a suite of housing programs, including home ownership and repair, rental housing and financing for other providers’ off-reserve Indigenous housing projects.

“There’s over 11,000 people that benefit on any given day from our programs,” Marchand said.

Indigenous control over the off-reserve indigenous housing portfolio was important to McBain, who helped convince federal and provincial politicians of the merits of putting the delivery and administration of housing projects in the hands of Indigenous communities and organizations.

In 2009, OAHS was put in charge of $60 million of the federal Aboriginal Housing Trust to deliver Indigenous housing programs outside of the Greater Toronto Area.

“If he has a legacy, it’s the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services,” said Maracle, whose Gignul Non-Profit Housing Corp. received $4.7 million of that money from OAHS to build a 28-unit Indigenous housing project in Ottawa.

“Don understood what ‘team’ was. He knew it in school when he played football, as a volunteer when he coached football, and I think he knew that instinctively when he built Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services. He knew how to build a team, he knew how to motivate a team, and he certainly knew how to lead a team.”

McBain also served on a number of committees, including the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s Urban Aboriginal Housing Advisory Committee, Ontario’s Indigenous Housing Strategy working group, and the CHRA’s Indigenous Housing Advisory Caucus working group, the latter of which focused on shaping the federal government’s nationwide, off-reserve Indigenous housing strategy.

“What also made him important in our world is he also understood our community,” Maracle said. “How we’re comprised, what the challenges were, and what kind of flexibility and funding base we needed to better address our challenges.”

McBain’s influence on national off-reserve housing didn’t end with the CHRA committee. Kevin Albers, Chief Executive Officer of the M’akola Group of Societies, the largest off-reserve Indigenous housing provider in B.C., says he often bounced ideas off McBain over the decade they knew each other, despite the differences between their organizations.

“We had different approaches, but the outcomes ended up being quite similar,” said Albers, who describes M’akola as having a “social entrepreneur perspective” focusing on increasing their revenue sources to subsidize their existing housing. OAHS focused on increasing the supply of housing for it and other provincial Indigenous housing providers.

“He was always trying to attack [housing issues], not just at the provincial Ontario level, but trying to make meaningful change at the federal level. He has that kind of access to the important ministers and deputy ministers’ offices.”

In what spare time he had left, McBain helped co-found the Canadian branch of the Chartered Institute of Housing Canada to help housing organizations pursue professional development and accreditation. He also sat on the board until his death last month.

McBain’s work lives on, setting the foundation for how he and many other Indigenous housing organizations hope urban and rural Indigenous housing programs will be delivered and run into the future. Nevertheless, the loss of McBain will be felt for a long time.

“If somebody walked into this room and cut off my arm, that’s exactly how I felt when they told me how bad [McBain’s illness] was before he passed away,” Maracle said.

“And when he passed away, it’s still a huge sense of loss. He was a real champion and a real gentleman, and he’ll be missed for sure.”  [Tyee]

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