For years, Vincent Bressette slept in bus shelters and alleyways around London.
Today, the 24-year-old is using his experience to bring positive change for Indigenous young people trying to find safe places to live in the southwestern Ontario city.
He’s part of a new Indigenous youth council running out of Youth Opportunities Unlimited that’s identifying and breaking down barriers to culturally safe care.
Indigenous people in cities across Canada experience homelessness at a disproportionately higher rate than non-Indigenous people, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. The council is part of a larger research project at Western University aiming at preventing an end to youth homelessness.
For Bressette, from Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, being part of the youth council is a big priority.
“It’s definitely one of those things that helps keep my mind straight and keeps me focused, keeps me going through my day. I have something to look forward to, something to do and be a part of,” he said.
But the work is not always easy. Sharing difficult experiences and coming up with ideas for change brings up a lot of emotions. Troubling incidents of racism and prejudice are just some of the barriers he said he has faced while on the streets for nearly a decade, leaving him feeling disconnected from the community.
“No matter how polite or how good your manners are, you’re always going to receive criticism just for the fact that you are Indigenous,” he said.
But those experiences are now being used as fuel for change.
‘It just gives such a sense of hope’
Even after only meeting a handful of times, the group of about 10 young people is already making an impact.
“It’s been absolutely incredible,” said Sarah Palmer, a youth development counsellor at YOU and one of the researchers on the project.
“We have these incredible discussions about their experiences, and it always ends on a positive note,” she said. “It just gives such a sense of hope, and it’s just very empowering to be able to speak with youth about their experiences and figure out what changes can be made right now to make things better for others.”
After hearing how emotionally exhausted a young person felt after being interrupted while completing a smudging ceremony and having to regularly answer cultural questions, the group created posters to hang around the shelter to explain smudging and specific First Nations close to London so others can take a few minutes to read the answers instead, Palmer said.
Paisley Murphy, 20, vividly remembers the stress of hunting for a place to stay before ending up at the YOU shelter.
For her, joining the council is a chance to connect with her Indigenous heritage as well as to combat homelessness. She said she’s not in contact with her Indigenous biological father.
“I’m glad to sort of delve and learn more about my culture and how the scars of colonialism are still impacting the people today,” said Murphy. “I want to see a world where Indigenous people don’t have to suffer under the hands of colonialism.”
Right now, they are brainstorming, establishing goals and deciding their direction, she said.
Creating safer space for Indigenous youth
Rachel Radyk, a nurse and member of Chippewas of the Georgina Island First Nation, said Indigenous people too often face violence and stereotyping accessing services.
She first joined the project through an Indigenous research fellowship at Western University and has stayed on. She sees the project as a way to build young leaders and create safer spaces for Indigenous youth.
“I think that it’s so important to acknowledge the experiences and knowledge that our youth hold and the power that they have as our young generation of leaders,” she said.
“I think that it’s so important to be able to bring those youth along on this journey to be able to create an environment that empowers them to continue to grow as leaders.”
That is true for Bressette. Since finding housing, he’s taken on more leadership roles and wants to see the council grow, he said.
“I’m now in a place where I feel safe. I feel like I have a home,” he said. “When I can feel safe at home, I feel like I can go out and try to feel safe out in the community.”