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In April 2022, Ecotrust Canada's Indigenous Homelands team met with the Nuxalk housing department, the Chief and the band council to learn more about their ideas on housing and the health department. The team was given a tour of Nuxalk territory to show their culture and housing projects, as well as areas that are special to the region for harvesting. (ASHLI AKINS / ECOTRUST CANADA)

Why We Exist: A new era for the Indigenous Homelands Initiative

In April 2022, Ecotrust Canada's Indigenous Homelands team met with the Nuxalk housing department, the Chief and the band council to learn more about their ideas on housing and the health department. The team was given a tour of Nuxalk territory to show their culture and housing projects, as well as areas that are special to the region for harvesting. (ASHLI AKINS / ECOTRUST CANADA)

Home. For many, this word is tangled with nuanced emotions. When I was researching people’s associations with “home” for Ecotrust Canada’s housing & homelands governance toolkit, many chose words like stress, crisis, money, shelter, and homelessness. The lack of physical space seemed to be more present in people’s minds than a holistic sense of place. How some of our hearts feel when we say the word “home” – and perhaps the gap some of us feel – may speak to the crisis we now collectively face. A crisis due to the many systems that have been set up to break us down. And a crisis that is felt even more so in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities.

Last year, as I wrapped up the final stage of my PhD, I worked as a Sustainability Scholar with Ecotrust Canada’s Indigenous Homelands Initiative (IHL), researching innovative and decolonial housing governance models for First Nations communities across British Columbia. I had recently returned “home” to the Pacific Northwest after living in the Andean mountains of Peru for several years, working in collaboration with rural Quechua communities on issues related to cultural revitalization and community-based sustainable development.

Photo by Anshela Paravecino Kehuarucho

Though my research fellowship at Ecotrust Canada began as a short-term project, my position seemed to gradually stretch into more tasks. This June, I was offered to take on the role as the new Director of the Indigenous Homelands Initiative. From Ecotrust Canada’s perspective, my previous interdisciplinary experience as both practitioner and researcher working as a leader in the non-profit sector in collaboration with remote Indigenous communities were assets. From my perspective, I felt humbled and nervous. Above all, though, I was motivated by the opportunity to learn how the skills and theories I had learned and applied internationally over the past 17 years could be adapted back home, in a very different context. I felt a responsibility to be part of our reconciliation efforts here, on what we so inaccurately consider “Canadian soil.”

*          *          *

As an NGO founder and social entrepreneur, I recognize that while there is usually some reinvigoration that comes with new leadership, there is also discomfort during moments of transition. I have, therefore — surely awkwardly at times — tried to step as tenderly as I could as we collectively reimagine the future of IHL.

I’ve therefore spent the past several months listening and asking questions. I have learned from IHL’s former Director, the innovative and humble Anthony Persaud, who has stewarded the program over the past three years. And I have been mentored by our small but mighty team, in particular the brilliant Indigenous leaders who make up IHL: Kia Dunn (IHL’s Law & Policy Lead), Carrigan Tallio (Nuxalk Community Liaison), and Russell Myers Ross (IHL Strategic Advisor).

When friends and family began asking me what my new role was, I struggled to articulate it. It wasn’t just about housing; if so, I wasn’t the right fit. But it wasn’t just about land tenure either. When I chatted with our colleagues, funders, and partners, I asked myself: Why do we exist? I critically examined our niche, questioning what our unique contribution was to this space.

Because the non-profit space is crowded. And so too is the housing space. And the sustainability space.

What I found was this:

The space that needs more support from funders, NGOs, and groups working towards Reconciliation is one where people think systemically about issues that are preventing community members from returning to and thriving in their homelands. This space is integral to nation-building; it may be crowded within some communities and around some Council tables, but with far too little support from those of us who hope to consider ourselves “allies.” It is a holistic space that supports Indigenous communities to decolonize and govern themselves based on their own cultural laws. A space that understands that cultural, environmental, and economic well-being are all key components of community resilience.

This is what the Indigenous Homelands Initiative is about. This is why we exist, to fill this gap.

My research in the Andean mountains wrestled with complex questions about community well-being in the face of unsustainable development. In the end, I found it came down to a trifecta of economic resilience, land stewardship, and cultural identity.

We cannot have a truly sustainable society if our culture, economy, and environment are not taken care of. The Indigenous Homelands Initiative’s vision begins with this holistic focus on well-being. We aim to break down barriers that prevent community members from being able to return to, and thrive in, their homelands. 

We understand that this is a systemic challenge. Without meaningful and stable employment, youth cannot return home. First, however, they must be trained for local jobs that are available and needed, through formal education, apprenticeships, or community mentorship. And education and employment only matter if there is housing for people to live in – housing that is safe, and culturally, socially, and environmentally appropriate.

Building local and regional supply chains – including community-based and non-monetary trade economies – will not only provide more sustainable materials for housing, but will also generate training and employment opportunities.

Land stewardship is one of the key tenets of homeland reclamation, including continued use of one’s land and resources; innovative models of land tenure and management; and community-led, culturally relevant conservation.

The Indigenous Homelands Initiative tackles these issues through a holistic lens. None of these challenges can be solved without first supporting Nations to implement a community-informed, organized, unified, and decolonized governance system. And we honour that a Nation’s power to govern itself lies in its cultural laws and ancestral teachings, which may need to be re-remembered, reclaimed, and revitalized.

With this new working model in mind, we are now drafting the Indigenous Homelands Initiative’s three-year operational plan to align with Ecotrust Canada’s new Strategic Plan. Stay tuned in the fall of 2023 for more details on our new and ongoing projects. In essence, we aim for all of our projects to accomplish systemic, meaningful, and reproducible change. We want them to be guided by a holistic viewpoint that prioritizes social, cultural, economic, and environmental values. And we want to boldly try out radical and decolonial ideas – against-the-grain alternatives – to test what is possible.

Nature, Nuxalk Territory
Both this photo, and the feature photo were taken on Nuxalk Territory (Ashli Akins | ECOTRUST CANADA)


[Published on August 31, 2023]