Alex Wilson is a First Nations scholar, researcher and educator from Opaskwayak Cree Nation. In 2014, Wilson worked with Sylvia McAdam and other Idle No More organizers to develop One House Many Nations (OHMN), an educational campaign and sustainable housing project for Indigenous communities. Through Making the Shift funding, Wilson, the OHMN research team, and Indigenous partners are tailoring their community-led approach for First Nations youth. 

Youth are involved in the design and build of homes in their communities, and they share with the OHMN team their experiences around the nature of homelessness for Indigenous young people, along with possible pathways to prevent and sustain exits from homelessness.

For Wilson, the core aspect of OHMN is folding reciprocity, the nurturing of relationships, and capacity-building into every aspect of the work with the youth. “A core principle of Cree philosophy is relationality,” shared Wilson, “and our understanding of the accountability that comes with that. When the youth are actively engaged, and they understand the relational aspect of what they’re engaging in, it becomes circular knowledge reciprocity, and it’s intergenerational.” 

The OHMN project is exemplary of this core philosophy coming alive through research. “We work with the Nutana High School Industrial Careers Education Program and youth from Big River First Nation. We had community meetings with youth from Big River and they developed criteria for who would be involved in the design and build aspects of OHMN. They selected six youth participants to collaborate with Nutana High School students and our team. Each of the six will have a house by the completion of our MTS project”

“We bought all the students and youth laptops and they learned SketchUp, a program for designers. We hosted design workshops with architects. The youth would also ask for support to create a resume and other essential skills. The students involved get high school credit for participating. We have taken them to see a ‘tiny home’ development in Craig, Saskatchewan, and they have been to the University of Manitoba to the School of Architecture twice now. We are also taking the youth to the Venice Biennale where OHMN is featured in the c/a/n/a/d/a pavilion. One of them wants to be an architect now.” 

“This approach also centers the knowledge of the youth,” Wilson continued. “When people are proud, that’s a form of living that good life, or that beautiful life, Mino pimatisowin. The kids are building the houses and they’re so proud of it at the school. They want to show their family or their parents or guardians or larger community. When we completed our first house that went to Big River, they had drummers, singing, and there was ceremony. The amount of pride and joy was huge.” 

Housing, home and land 

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) developed the National Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada in collaboration with First Nations, Métis and Inuit across Canada. Out of this process of consultation and collaboration came a consensus that Indigenous Homelessness in Canada:

“ not defined as lacking a structure of habitation. It is described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews, including individuals, families and communities isolated from relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, language and identities. They cannot culturally, emotionally, or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships.”

Wilson reflected on the standing definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, based on her dialogues with youth, Indigenous partners and a myriad of others: “Houselessness is the term we generally use. We are in our own home, which is our home communities, our homeland, and houses are only one part of that. The dispossession of land, and removal from land, the commodification of land is such a big part of the housing problem.” 

“The genesis of OHMN was from our organizing efforts for the Idle No More movement, which is now in its 10th anniversary. When we built our first house for OHMN, we wanted to address the notion that the housing crisis is not just a building problem. It is a system issue within Canada, tied to the climate crisis, to land sovereignty and to natural resources.”

What is next for OHMN?

“We finished our third house in March 2023, and we are starting design on the fourth,” shared Wilson. “We have to figure out how to make it bigger because the young person who will be living in the house has a partner and child. We are also looking into alternative energy sources such as solar.” Wilson also looks forward to the upcoming year, “when we’ll have time for more reflection on our process, intentional discussions around how this worked and how it can be shared with other communities, and what will be useful in terms of qualitative research on the process”.

The MtS-funded One House Many Nations research project runs from 2020 until 2024.