Original Published on Nov 15, 2022 at 06:27

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Yellowknife’s advisory board on homelessness has allocated $150,000 toward a project that seeks to develop off-grid, on-the-land housing solutions for Indigenous women and girls. 

The idea was presented by Katłįà Lafferty, co-chair of both the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network and the National Indigenous Feminist Housing Working Group. 

Lafferty, who has first-hand experience of the N.W.T.’s public housing system, highlighted the importance of access to safe accommodation by noting in a presentation that the need for housing is mentioned more than 400 times in the report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 

Lafferty is part of a team that includes northern housing expert Julia Christensen, an Indigenous non-profit named Keepers of the Circle, and a collective known as the Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA). 

Cabin Radio spoke with Lafferty to hear more about how the philosophy behind the project and where it’s headed.

This interview was recorded on Thursday, November 10, 2022. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Caitrin Pilkington: How did this idea first come about? 

Katłįà Lafferty: It’s something that’s been kind-of ruminating for a long time, figuring out how to do things differently when it comes to housing. It’s all still evolving and coming together, but we know that we need to ensure there is affordability, safety and security for Indigenous women and girls, while also factoring in that we’re in a climate emergency, and that we shouldn’t be capitalizing on housing. 

CP:That last thought is interesting, because in a way, even the most well-intentioned housing efforts I’ve seen in the North re-create a housing system structured around capital.

KL: As Indigenous people, we don’t say that we own the land. We respect it, we take care of it. And that concept has been lost through colonial land grabs, all of this capitalizing on land and turning land into a commodity in itself. And that’s what has really caused this problem across the nation with homelessness, because it becomes about who can afford what, it becomes about classism. It also creates this stuckness — whether you’re stuck spending all your money on rent or physically bound, with a fixed address, to the plot of land you’ve bought. 

We’re trying to go back to taking care of the land once again, and living nomadically — but in a way where tradition meets technology. You know, my grandmother was born on the land, she lived on the land until she was in her twenties. And she moved around quite a bit in that area, and the idea behind that was what we now call an “environmental footprint.” When you move around a lot, you’re not devastating the land, you’re letting things grow back. We’re trying to imagine a future where you can set up your home on a piece of land and not call it your property, but land you’re taking care of. You can can pick the structure up and move it if you need to, and go somewhere else. These homes are expandable, they’re collapsible, they can be moved. And the people living in them won’t have to pay to live any more. They’re going to live for free, because of the home’s capacity to be off-grid. 

And now, these women will not be putting all of their money into a decrepit housing unit that they don’t even want to live in, that they don’t feel ownership over. They can finally save their money. They’re not going to be bound by restrictions or policies that tell them they have to pay a certain amount each month or they’re going to get evicted. They can pay their way through school, or save that money for their children. 

And then we’re also looking at food security because, right now, food security is a huge issue, especially in the North, where people can’t afford to eat. We’re looking at up-and-coming geothermal technologies where you can grow greenery in -40C. Those technologies aren’t quite there yet, but they’re coming. 

So really, it’s an upset for the Power Corporation and it’s an upset for the Housing Corporation because they’re capitalizing on poverty. And it’s got to stop. 

CP: How do you move housing away from the marketplace?

KL:That’s the hard part. A lot of people can’t get their minds around it, because it’s never been done, they’ve never seen it. 

I don’t even like the term “housing” because, to me, it’s not permanent. It doesn’t give you autonomy over where you live. But at the same time, people do need to be housed. And they need support systems in place. And that’s why we’re going to say, yes, this is where you’re going to put sweat equity into living here and into this space, and yes, you’ll have a sense of ownership. 

But at the same time, if something goes wrong, we’ll also have somebody come and help you. I think that’s the fear of a lot of people who are living in market rentals or in public housing, is that taking the step into home ownership means that you’re on your own and you have to take care of everything by yourself. And so we will help to train these women to understand the technology that goes into the homes and how to maintain them. And if anything were to go wrong, they’ll understand what to do. So we’re not just housing people, we’re actually working with them to make sure that they have the tools and skills necessary to continue to live sustainably. 

And I mean, we’re going to have to fit in a little bit to the rules of colonization, because we have to purchase land for all of this to happen on. Whether the structure of the project itself would be a rent-to-own program, a co-op you can come into… each of these systems has its pros and cons. So we’re figuring it out. 

CP: How do you think women will benefit from the kind of community you’re hoping to create with these off-grid homes?

KL: We’re in a society now where housing has created a lot of loneliness — structurally, it segregates everybody. We see old folks living in homes and not seeing their grandchildren. We have exhausted parents, raising children without support. We want to give back a real sense of community. So we’re hopefully going to be able to put together four to six units where women and children will in the same area and able to help each other. And that’s so needed, because I would never have gotten anywhere without the support of other women, especially when I was a single mom. 

CP: How did you connect with the Architects and Housing Alienation collective? 

KL: I was approached by them through a recommendation from Margaret Erasmus and Larry Jones, who act as northern advisors for the project. Ouri Scott is the principal architect, and Julia Christensen handles the financial side of things. 

A lot of this work is supported and could not be done without Keepers of the Circle, which is a non-profit organization out of Northern Ontario doing great work, and Arlene Hache, a longtime northerner who has devoted her life trying to help women who are in situations of becoming unhoused. She founded the Yellowknife Women’s Centre.

CP: Were there other projects that inspired this one? 

KL: A few tiny home projects that were going around, like the one in Seattle for the homeless. Nothing like this, though, where we’re targeting Indigenous women and girls specifically, making sure it’s completely net zero, making sure all the equipment we’re using is sustainable.

The long-term vision of this project is to have a factory where we can manufacture and distribute these off-grid units to all the communities, and have everything be Indigenous owned and operated. 

CP: Have you been in talks with Indigenous government leaders as well? Have you been able to gauge their interest in participating in something like this? 

KL: We’re still in a fairly preliminary stage right now, but I’ve reached out to the Yellowknives Dene, which is my band, and the Dene Nation. And Laurier University, who we’re working with on this project, has been working with the K’asho Got’ine in Fort Good Hope on their housing plan. So there has been movement with different Nations who have the time, the interest and the funding to support something like this. I think once we have a prototype to show people some more visuals, it will also help to get people on board  and realize this isn’t just talk, that something like this could really work. 

CP: You’ve spent some time in the NWT public housing system. How did your own experiences influence the design process?

KL: I always go back to my grandmother and her life of living on the land. It’s something that a lot of people have a hard time getting their minds around, the fact that one or two generations ago, in the Northwest Territories, people were living completely off the land. And I always carry that with me, the fact that my grandma was born in Nı̨hshı̀h, Old Fort Rae, and grew up there off-grid… meaning she didn’t have the luxury of a fridge or an oven.  

A lot of people say we can’t go back to those days. But it’s not going back. It’s sort-of going in a big circle, taking a little bit of the past and future and finding a way to make it work. It’s tradition meets technology.

As Indigenous people, we knew how to care for the land. And that’s why we have climate change, man-made climate change… it’s because people haven’t been taking care of the land. So we need to do something. We need to change the way we live and get a bit uncomfortable and learn how to conserve energy instead of expending it all the time. 

The current projections are that it’s going to cost around $500,000 per unit. But to get a modular house up to the North costs about the same anyway. So why not spend just a little bit more on a solution that would be more sustainable in the long term, be better for the environment, and help Indigenous women and girls get out of poverty? It’s a win-win. 

I just got off the phone with the Arctic Energy Alliance and they’ve expressed interest in supporting us, so I’m really excited about that at the moment… they do a lot of work across the North around retrofitting homes to meet energy requirements and things like that. Honestly, it’s just exciting how many people have been willing to lend their support where it’s needed and collaborate around this. 

I can’t wait to see it all come together, the day that we can say we did it. All the architects are getting together next week to look at a 10-year vision, so we get to imagine where this project will be in 10 years and how we hope it will grow. Most of the time, we’re focusing on this next year and getting things off the ground. 

But next week, we’re taking the opportunity to answer all these questions about the future. How could collapsible homes help Arctic communities who are having to relocate? How will these structures handle subarctic extreme weather events like fires and floods? How will climate change transform the housing system that we know, and how can we adapt? 

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories

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