“Housing is one of the most significant social determinants of health – and it’s so important for expectant mothers,” says Justin Marchand, Executive Director at Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS). “That’s why we’re giving them the support they need, before and after they give birth.”
OAHS provides safe, affordable housing for urban and rural First Nation, Inuit and Métis people in Ontario. On any given day, they’re helping to house approximately 10,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “86% of indigenous people live off-reserve in Ontario, and the need for housing, as surveyed by Stats Can, is more than 50% higher for indigenous people than it is for the general population,” says Justin. “People who have access to safe affordable housing are in a better position to further their education and pursue employment opportunities.”
OAHS’ work takes many forms – recently, for example, they partnered with the Kenora District Services Board to create the Sioux Lookout Pre- and Post-Natal Development, which provides pre- and post-natal support to Indigenous mothers, infants and their families.
32 First Nations in that part of the province don’t have hospitals, which means pregnant women from those Nations who want to give birth at a hospital must fly to Sioux Lookout – at no more than 36 weeks pregnant – and move into short-term housing. If they have high-risk pregnancies or complications, they may need to travel even earlier. There’s not a lot of affordable housing in the area, so women generally end up staying at hostels, emergency shelters or hotels. Given that, it’s not surprising that a Kenora District Service Board Needs Assessment revealed that many local Indigenous women and their families did not have the support and adequate housing they need to make their journey into motherhood a safe one.
The Development aims to change that, providing 30 units of one- to three-bedroom apartments, along with common spaces and a variety of services through First Step Women’s Shelter and Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre. Woman and their families will receive cultural and medical support, as well as transportation to and from the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre.
“What we’re trying to do is provide appropriate housing while easing the financial burden on the health care system,” says Justin. “At the same time, we’re giving mothers the care they need – both medical and cultural. Many women have grown up in very remote First Nations, and coming to an urban centre can be a new world for them – cultural support can help them feel safe and comfortable.” Those supports include traditional healing services and having Elders available for naming ceremonies. There’s also medical care, lactation counseling and more. And for both mothers and their family members, there are educational and employment services and information available at the centre.
This is the largest major public-private partnership that OAHS has worked on. The Government of Ontario funded $4.5 million of the project, but OAHS had to source private financing of more than $5 million to make this centre a reality. After struggling to finalize a deal with other partners, they approached BMO – and BMO bankers Dan Adams and Matt Neveu were proud to be the partners they were looking for.
BMO has a rich history in Indigenous banking, and in taking on bold ventures. “Innovative projects like this are a natural fit for BMO,” says Dan. “They align so well with our Purpose to boldly grow the good in business and life. This has never been done before, and that excites us. We always want to find new and better ways to make a difference. This will help so many women from the north have safe births and babies – and that means a lot more than just financing a deal.”
“I have to give kudos to Dan and Matt,” says Justin. “They have been so responsive and helpful. They’ve always kept their word, and were always open about what was going on. BMO made a difficult process very fair and transparent – and they’re always looking ahead and finding ways to grow our relationship.”
“Working with Indigenous people, honesty is the most important thing,” says Dan. “So we are always up front about what we can and can’t do. And we always do what we said we’d do.”
Sarah McBain, Communications Specialist, OAHS is looking forward to opening day in summer 2020. “This is a new model – a different way of helping people, a different way of doing business,” she says. “When people are open to change, and we communicate and collaborate together to make that change, then good, positive things happen! I’m excited for this project, and for what comes next.”
Read more about Indigenous banking at BMO here.
Read more about financial products, services, employment and scholarships for Indigenous communities here.
Note: the photo above was taken in 2019.