“Everyone deserves a home, no matter who you are, or where you are from.”

October 13, 2021

Janine Harvey lives in Ulukhaktok, a community of less than 450 people in the Beaufort Delta Region of the Northwest Territories.

At the time of this interview, her community has no internet service and so we speak over the phone instead of the now ubiquitous Zoom.

Harvey is a mother, wife, an advocate, and a supporter of Inuit culture. She describes Ulukhaktok as a “very cultural community; lots of hunting and fishing, craft making and artists.”

That culture is part of what led her back there after decades away.

“I wanted to be part of my culture again,” she says.

Harvey grew up in Ulukhaktok, but moved to Yellowknife when she was 19.

In Yellowknife, she began her career as a support worker with the YWCA, working at a women’s shelter called the Alison McAteer House.

“I worked there for five and a half years and during my time there, I would say maybe 90 percent of the women and children that were fleeing family violence were Indigenous or Inuit,” she says. “And I thought there was a need for more workers that are Indigenous because we have this connection. I thought I could bring a lot of different things to the table because I am helping my own people and they trust me.”

Harvey says she was drawn to the work at the shelter because of her own lived experience.

“I am a victim of sexual assault, and I am a victim of a kidnapping. With the trauma that I’ve endured myself, I decided I wanted to help other people,” she says. “I decided I wanted to make sure that women had a safe place to go…I wanted to be an advocate for a lot of women that were facing family violence or that didn’t have a home. Then it just became bigger.”

After the YWCA, Harvey started working at the Women’s Society in Yellowknife.

“With the help of the Women’s Society, me and my colleague Lauren started the Housing First program from the ground up,” she says. “That program opened my eyes to another area of vulnerable people: people who were homeless and had nowhere to go, who were sleeping outside in -30 weather.

“I thought ‘this is not right’ then ‘there’s more that I could do’, so I started working with the people that were experiencing homelessness. I started asking what they wanted to do and what they needed to do instead of me telling them.”

What she heard from a lot of people in the program, Harvey says, was that they simply needed non-judgmental support.

There’s a lot of stigma towards homelessness. So, a lot of the people that I worked with asked ‘can you come with me to a meeting?’ or ‘can you come with me to Walmart because they’re not gonna let me in?’” Harvey says. “So, I found a lot of what we did was just to help empower the participants and to help reconnect them to society by going with them to meetings, to buy groceries, making sure they weren’t getting bad treatment from service workers or the public and just really helping them build their confidence.”

Advocating for the right to housing

Harvey believes that “housing is a right and everyone deserves a home, no matter who you are, or where you are from” and says that the government is not doing enough to address the housing crisis and poverty in the North.

“I advocate because I see how my people are living in the poorest housing for the highest rent. They are living in these units, where some of them have no doors or there’s mould in the kitchen or their floors need to be replaced, and there’s no renovation because they don’t have the materials and there are not enough workers to do maintenance and repairs. A lot of people in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut live in really poor conditions for a really high cost of living.”

To push for change, Harvey sits on her local council, the Pan-Canadian Voice for Women’s Housing and the Steering Committee of the National Right to Housing Network.

“The government hasn’t taken action on ending poverty as much as I would like to see, and they haven’t moved forward on housing for years and years,” she says.

Because her community is under-resourced, Harvey’s work is currently unpaid.

“Everything I am doing now is as a volunteer,” she says. “My drive comes from hearing the really horrible stories that people have had to go through. The money doesn’t even matter, I am just going to keep fighting for you because what is happening is not right.”

The journey to healing

Harvey’s return to Ulukhaktok has also been about healing.

“I went to Yellowknife for school, but I left my community due to family violence. I didn’t want to go back home because I felt judged and labelled and that I did wrong,” she explains. “The guy who had assaulted me when I was a teenager, I was one of the first people in my community to charge them for sexual assault. And the guy that kidnapped me got five years in jail, but it was really hard for me to move past all that.

“After some time in Yellowknife, after my kidnapping, I was an alcoholic. For a couple years. I drank my pain away. And everybody would say that I should go to a treatment centre, but I knew in my heart and in my head that I didn’t want to go to treatment because I couldn’t face being locked up, which a lot of people face up here. I now advocate for culturally appropriate treatment for our people, and for me, I knew I wanted to do my healing on the land in my own cultural ways.”

In Ulukhaktok, Harvey says she has gotten to “learn my Inuit way and reconnect with the land, my ancestors, and God, and have found forgiveness.”

She says she is hopeful that things will change and get better for her community.

I believe that if I keep doing the work that I am doing, somebody might listen. Somebody in government might take action and give us more money for housing, for free lunches for children,” she says.

“I try and speak up and if someone hears me and has the passion that I have, they, too, can help end homelessness.”

Janine Harvey was one of the panelists at CCHR and the National Right to Housing’s workshop, “Claiming the Right to Housing in the North through the National Housing Strategy Act”, held in September 2021. The workshop is part of an ongoing series of regional workshops with local partners across Canada.

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