How Canada’s history of slavery is linked to homelessness

How Canada’s history of slavery is linked to homelessness

In 1998 UNESCO designated August 23 the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Today, a history of exploitation and inequality is a root cause of Black people’s overrepresentation in homelessness. 

Where it all began 
In the 1760s Saint Domingue, present day Haiti, was the most lucrative colony in the Americas. They were producing sugar and coffee using slave labour at a booming rate. On the night of August 23, 1791, an uprising played a crucial role in the abolishment of the transatlantic slave trade.  

The uprising was a particularly difficult feat that lasted between 1791 to 1803 and saw the end of the French military in Haiti, but France was still present in the country until 1809. Saint Domingue’s independence wasn’t recognized until 1825. This pattern of exploitation and inequality is still very much impacting Black people today in the form of racism and discrimination, inhumane treatment, lack of food and access to healthcare, and poverty (among others) – all of which are at the root of homelessness. 

Over 4,000 Africans were brought to what is now Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick during Canada’s 200-year history of slavery. In 1793 Ontario (then Upper Canada) was the first to ban the importation of slaves, but British North American slaves were not legally freed until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. Meanwhile, Canada continued to implement discriminatory laws and practices which stripped them of equality.

Intergenerational trauma coupled with centuries of racial segregation and criminalization of Black people has led to an overrepresentation of African Canadians living on the poverty line. Today, despite Black people only making up 3 per cent of Canada’s population, in Toronto alone, 31 per cent of homeless people who responded to the City of Toronto’s 2021 Street Needs Assessment identify as Black. Black people are also heavily overrepresented in Canadian prisons, accounting for up to 15 per cent of the inmate population.  

Racialized communities and the housing crisis 
Toronto is home to the largest number of immigrants to Canada, but it also has the largest population of homeless people, including refugees, asylum seekers and temporary residents. Many newcomers have experienced discrimination when it comes to securing a rental in Toronto. 

A discrimination audit report by the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights found that those with a racialized accent are 267% more likely to experience discrimination when looking for housing. Immigrant women who report having children are 563% more likely to be discriminated against. Immigrants looking for work often encounter cultural and language barriers and face further challenges regarding educational qualifications from their home countries that are not recognized by Canadian employers. All of these put a huge burden on newcomers who are faced with losing their limited funds before they can find affordable housing. 

Laura Paley from our community partner Street Haven delivers a 6-week workshop for refugees at our Willowdale Welcome Centre called Street Smart, giving residents the knowledge and skills essential for a successful renting experience.

Thanks to the amazing work of our staff and community partners, we were able to help find safe, affordable housing for 300 people from the Black community (self-identifying as African, African Canadian or African Caribbean) between January and June of this year! 

How you can help 
With a recent influx of asylum seekers arriving in Canada, Toronto is in desperate need of more low-barrier supportive housing in our city. It is paramount that opportunities, services, and programs be available for everyone irrespective of cultural background and ethnicity, and that racialized communities receive equal treatment when it comes to accessing health care, social services and housing assistance.

We believe everyone needs a home irrespective of racial and ethnic background or life experience and house newcomers at all our properties. 

In response to Toronto’s growing number of newcomers, we opened the Willowdale Welcome Center, our dedicated shelter for refugees where we offer community-based engagement, peer support programs, an integrated meal program, support services and intensive case management. We also have a housing worker who is dedicated to helping our shelter residents find permanent housing. 

Follow us on social media at @homes_first to learn more about some of the community engagement programs we run at Willowdale!

In commemoration of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, donate to Homes First today.

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