Aurora Village Transforms from Resort to Refuge in the Wake of a Crisis
Early in the pandemic, advocates made a lot of noise about relocating people in homeless shelters to safer accommodations in individual hotel rooms. Several cities across the United States implemented programs to do this, with varying degrees of commitment and impact. Predictably, the NIMBYs didn’t like that.
A bit farther to the north, a unique resort in Canada’s Northwest Territories used to delighting tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights opened its doors to local people in need of shelter and healing.
Made Possible by a Collaboration of Indigenous Organizations
With NWT closed to tourists during the ongoing pandemic, Aurora Village found itself at a crossroads with plenty of beds available but no tourists to fill them. Until someone had an idea. With the help of the Dene Nation, Crazy Indians Brotherhood, and the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, that idea came to fruition. The project was also able to secure $1.3 million of federal funding and hopes for more to continue operations year-round.
In late November 2021, unhoused guests began arriving at the resort and settling in. While this on-the-land healing camp is not exclusively open to homeless people or people from the surrounding area of Yellowknife, the core idea behind its inception was, “Dene people helping Dene people.”
So far, guests have come from all over the Northwest Territories and a few from Nunavut.
Sharing Experiences and Healing
One unique benefit of Aurora Village is guests can talk about shared experiences with other people in the community. This is an aspect that camp leaders cite as critical in many guests’ healing process. Being homeless is one thing, but being an Indigenous person on your own land comes with its own specific set of challenges and trauma.
Many indigenous guests share their experience with government programs and policies that severed them from their families and larger communities, leaving them disconnected and vulnerable. For many guests, the reconnection offered at Aurora Village is long overdue.
Indigenous People Experience Homelessness Disproportionately
In Yellowknife alone, where Aurora Village is located, 90% of the homeless population is Indigenous. This trend continues across Canada. In Toronto, where Indigenous people make up 0.5% of the total population, they account for 15% of the unhoused population. And that’s the low end of the spectrum. Overall, Indigenous people are eight times more likely to experience homelessness in urban areas.
To understand why that is, we have to look at some of the impacts of colonization.
One of the tools of colonization weaponized against Indigenous people in North America most recently was the residential school. You may have recently heard of this concept in the news, but Indigenous communities have never forgotten. The negative impact of these schools is plain to see.
Beginning in the 1870s and not stopping until 1996, residential schools placed (or stole) more than 150,000 Indigenous children, severing them from their families and their culture. Once there, many of these children were subjected to additional abuse or even killed. Authorities are still uncovering their mass graves.
Residential schools aggressively assimilated, deeply traumatized, and completely isolated the children that survived. They were then expected to resume a “normal life” they had barely been allowed to glimpse.
The Sixties Scoop
In addition to the residential schools, there was also a period of trauma from the late 1950s to the 1980s. Policy changes during this time allowed child welfare agents to remove Indigenous children from their families. They then fostered them out so white families could adopt them. An estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were stolen this way during the Sixties Scoop.
This further destabilized families that already rocked by generations of residential schooling and traumatized children and parents alike. All of these government actions test the limits of familial and community bonds. They isolate individual people from what would otherwise be a vast and thriving social safety net.
Alone and intentionally isolated, the victims of decades of racist oppression and historical and modern trauma, Indigenous people fall into homelessness at highly disproportionate rates.
This is precisely the type of trauma that the on-the-land healing camp at Aurora Village is attempting to overcome.
Indigenous Homelessness is More Than Just Houselessness
Many Indigenous people define homelessness differently than non-Indigenous people do. It may be as simple as having a roof above your head for you and me. But from a common Indigenous worldview, “home” refers to the interconnected web of relationships in a community and connectedness to people, land, and culture.
In other words, precisely the things that have been deliberately taken away from them, time and time again in a seemingly endless cycle from the day that colonizers first arrived on this soil.
Looking at this definition, many of the cruel policies and programs forced upon Indigenous people throughout the centuries seem almost purpose-built to separate them from their homes. Other causes, such as climate change which has prevented Indigenous groups from practicing their culture in traditional ways, were less intentional, though no less devastating.
Much of what has been taken may never be restored. But for now, Aurora Village is healing what can be healed.