To bring systemic changes, it needs to be collective

June 15, 2021

Spotlight on Priscilla Johnstone

Homelessness Action Plan Manager at Saskatoon Housing Initiative Partnership

June 15, 2021

Like many people, Priscilla Johnstone did not always know what kind of work she wanted to do when she got older. As a child, she dreamt about being a cop. As a young adult, she worked in the health sector. Now, she works as the Homelessness Action Plan Manager at the Saskatoon Housing Initiative Partnership (SHIP). While her current job is not where she thought she would end up, in many ways, her previous work experience and her lived experience make her the ideal person for the work that she is now doing.

Johnstone joined SHIP, an organization that provides consultation, research services, and front-line support to groups developing affordable housing, in September 2020. At SHIP, Johnstone is working on the implementation of coordinated access and the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS), which is part of the federal government’s Reaching Home homelessness strategy program.

Reaching Home was designed to support the goals of the federal government’s National Housing Strategy, which was introduced in 2017 with the aim of advancing the right to housing and addressing a range of housing needs, from shelters and community housing to affordable rental and homeownership.

A large part of Johnstone’s job is making sure that SHIP’s work has an Indigenous lens. In Saskatoon, this is particularly important.

In the 2018 Point-in-Time Homelessness Count, 85.5 percent of the homeless population identified as Indigenous.

“Because the Indigenous homeless population is so high, we want to be able to focus on and come from an Indigenous lens and an Indigenous perspective on why some of those issues are recurring,” Johnstone says. “Basically, I want to be able to provide insight into the historical reasons as to why there are a lot of reasons surrounding homelessness for Indigenous people.

Johnstone works closely with Derek Rope from Medicine Rope Strategies in Saskatoon. Together, they have worked with survivors from residential schools – a group of more than 90 from Saskatoon and the surrounding area – on “the best way to engage Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers on how to tackle the housing issues,” she says.

“There is a lot of talk about Indigenous inclusion and [coming at things] from an Indigenous lens and collaboration moving forward, but there is difficulty in the sense as to what is the appropriate way to have engagement,” she says. “Here in Saskatoon, we have multiple demographics of Indigenous people; we have First Nations, we have Métis, and some Inuit. Because those different values and views come into place, there needs to be more of a collaboration piece moving forward, so that all voices are heard.

Johnstone is working to bring forth an Indigenous framework for Indigenous inclusion following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the recommendations from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry.

“When I think of the magnitude of that stuff, it’s enormous,” Johnstone says.

Still, because of her own experience, she remains hopeful.

Johnstone’s mother went to a residential school. Her father went to a day school.

“Our family had a lot of domestic violence and alcoholism in my younger years. In my childhood we spent a lot of time running from shelter to shelter because of the domestic violence situation that had occurred in my home,” Johnstone shares. “We moved around all the time, from on reserve to urban settings. Back and forth, back and forth.”

Johnstone’s “saving grace”, she says, was that “because of my experience with my mom going back and forth to shelters and talking to counsellors, at a young age, I started reaching out to guidance counsellors. So, I learned how to build those mechanisms of support and how to navigate through those traumas and addictions and violence in the home and to move past it.”

Breaking cycles of trauma, however, is hard, and it took some starts and stops, Johnstone admits.

“I was a teenage mom. I dropped out of high school in Grade 10. I had my first child when I was 17. Single mom,” she says. “I really struggled.”

She credits a work placement program for helping her turn around her life for good. Through the program, she got her GED and started working as a practicum student in the health sector, eventually working there for 10 years.

After completing her diploma in addictions, she came across a mentorship opportunity with the Regina Police Service for Indigenous people to learn about policing through a two-week trial and decided to apply on a whim.

“I wasn’t even there for like three days and I was like ‘absolutely, I want to do this,’” she says.

That two-week trial led to a nine-year career in the police services.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a police officer,” she explains. “But I gave up on that because I didn’t finish school and because I was a teenage mom, so I thought that would never happen for me.”

Working as a police officer had a huge impact on Johnstone.

“I worked in an urban setting for policing, as well as a First Nations setting. I saw first-hand human beings at their worst, and the biggest things that I saw were issues of social injustices that create addictions and just how everything kind of perpetuates itself. Most crimes happen because of lack of,” she says.

“Those values and beliefs that I have learned from that policing perspective, as well as when I worked in health, those are the foundations that have helped me in regard to the work that I am doing right now because I have that complete understanding of how those situations impact individuals and families,” Johnstone says. “And my goal is just to be an advocate moving forward. So, that is what makes me hopeful.”

Johnstone is also buoyed by the increasing openness of the federal government to engage with Indigenous Peoples.

Reaching Home, the federal program that supports Johnstone’s work at SHIP, specifically speaks about the government’s commitment to “achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples” by “engaging with National Indigenous Organizations and Indigenous service providers” and working together to develop an approach on how to allocate funding, which is a great start.

“Our government has brought the conversations back to the community level of First Nations people, as well as Inuit and Métis to have a voice, so that in and of itself makes me hopeful. That they are willing to listen, they are willing to work with, they are willing to walk with…” says Johnstone.

“We need to learn to work together and move forward because the Indigenous housing crisis is a national crisis”

— Priscilla Johnstone

While Johnstone feels that the government has made progress in how it engages with Indigenous people, she says that more can be done at all levels of government. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the Indigenous housing crisis as people struggle with unexpected job loss and ongoing housing unaffordability. Indigenous advocates and supporters are calling on the federal government to provide long-term funding for an Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy created by Indigenous people for Indigenous people living in cities.

Johnstone hopes that as “Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing are slowly starting to make their way” into Western approaches, that we also learn from COVID-19 and continue to take more collective and partnership approaches to solving major issues like the housing crisis.

“There is no way we would be able to mitigate and work through this pandemic if there wasn’t collaboration and doing this community work together as a whole. I think [more people would have died] if we hadn’t worked together collectively through multi-organizations and multi-sectors and multi-jurisdictions,” she says.

Johnstone recently attended a workshop organized by CCHR and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre in partnership with the National Right to Housing Network that brought together different organizations from the Prairies to discuss intersectional challenges and solutions to key housing challenges in the region. Workshops like these are “fundamental in terms of the work and moving together,” she says.

“To bring systemic changes, one person can’t do it by themselves. One community can’t do it by themselves. It needs to be a collective.”

Priscilla Johnstone

The next regional workshop will take place in September and bring together housing advocates, community leaders, and people with lived experience to discuss the systemic issues faced by tenants in the North.

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