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First Nations

Increasingly prominent communities are apparent, but significant social change is still elusive

People smudge at Meet Me At The Bell Tower (MM@BT) on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End Friday, December 23, 2016.

Across Canada, cities are being reshaped by growing indigenous populations.

In the biggest cities on the prairies, and in smaller northern centres close to First Nations reserves, an indigenous population is growing in size and political influence. Already, changes at the local level are signalling a societal turn.

In the last few years, the concerns of many indigenous people, on issues such as murdered and missing women, the treatment of indigenous people in the justice and child-welfare systems, and the enduring impact of residential schools, have been prominent in national and local debates. Acknowledging Treaty land and traditional indigenous territory is now considered basic civic protocol, and the naming of streets or social agencies in local indigenous languages has brought a few indigenous words into the lexicon. But for many indigenous people, the significant social change they're seeking remains elusive.

Look around Winnipeg's downtown and it's clear the city is in the midst of a demographic shift. In the elevated walkways that offer shelter from the legendary winds, it seems roughly half the people shopping, walking or stopping to chat, are indigenous. In fact, more than 70,000 residents identify as aboriginal. Like many the other cities with a growing indigenous population, Winnipeg has seen more than its share of racially charged conflict, but the signs of an increasingly prominent indigenous community are apparent.

Storefronts in Winnipeg's downtown now bear messages of greeting in indigenous languages, ranging from Cree to Dakota, Michif and Inuktitut, distributed by the local business association. At the University of Winnipeg, students who began their studies this year are now required to take a course on indigenous peoples and culture. A community group is petitioning to rename a street in Ojibwe. The national aboriginal broadcaster, APTN, headquartered on Portage Avenue, plans to expand to the United States. On the main street of the predominantly aboriginal North End, Selkirk Avenue, once the heart of the city's Eastern European communities, schools of social work and urban studies from the province's two largest universities offer off-campus degree programs for indigenous students, producing a stream of graduates and nourishing a growing middle class.

Every home game for the NHL's Winnipeg Jets now opens with an announcement recognizing that the MTS Centre is located on Treaty One land, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. It also pledges that the Jets ownership, True North Sports and Entertainment, is committed "to a spirit of reconciliation for the future." Winnipeg's mayor, Brian Bowman, is Métis. In the provincial legislature, speculation about who might lead the Official Opposition has swirled almost exclusively around several indigenous contenders.

Cities see change

Ninoondawah Richard, with the Aboriginal Youth Opportunity, teaches young people spiritual traditions and drumming .

Winnipeg is the largest of the 28 cities across Canada where the indigenous population has reached the symbolic threshold of 10 per cent of the broader community (including those rounded up from 9.5 per cent and higher), according to the 2011 National Household Survey.

Just 10 years earlier, in 2001, there were only 17 communities with indigenous populations of that size. The list will almost certainly grow once the results of the 2016 long-form census are available, and not just because indigenous people living off-reserve were among the groups considered at risk of being undercounted in 2011. First Nations and Inuit people tend to have higher fertility rates than the rest of the population: In 2006, it was 2.7 children per woman for Inuit women and 2.4 for First Nations women, compared to 1.8 for Métis women, and 1.6 for the population overall.

The city with the highest proportion of indigenous people in Canada is Prince Albert, Sask., a community of roughly 35,000 located 140 kilometres north of Saskatoon. It's considered a hub for many Northern communities, including 12 nearby First Nations reserves in the Prince Albert Grand Council. Over the decade, the city's indigenous population grew by 37 per cent, far faster than growth in the city overall.

On the city's police force, a little less than 40 per cent of officers self-identify as indigenous, and the chief of police is Métis. One member of the eight-seat city council is Métis, and in the last election there was an indigenous candidate for mayor, though he did not win, the city manager, Jim Toye, said.

"The relationship with First Nations is very important to us," Mr. Toye said. "This is their lands that we are operating on."

He said the city acknowledges the Treaty relationship at public gatherings and, in its 2016 cultural plan, recognizes its history as a meeting place, known by its Cree name Kistahpinanihk, long before European arrival. The city officially defines itself as a multicultural community with indigenous roots.

"We truly believe that's what we are," Mr. Toye said.


Over the last few years, a number of cities have ushered in such changes. Many places, including Winnipeg and Saskatoon, have declared a "year of reconciliation," responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on the historical legacy of the residential schools system.

In Prince Rupert, B.C., the city with the second-highest proportion of indigenous people at more than 38 per cent, the school system last year made Sm'algyax language classes mandatory for all children through Grade 4. In Regina, where the indigenous population makes up one in 10 people in the city, they now fly the Treaty Four flag in front of City Hall.

In Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood, where a large segment of the population is indigenous, a residents group is petitioning City Hall to rename a street in their area with the Ojibway word migizi, meaning eagle. Several people who actually live on the street in question are opposed, however, and in other cities people have objected to similar plans, saying the indigenous words can be unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce. Organizer Sel Burrows said change, even when necessary, can be difficult, but the opposition doesn't deter him.

"The issue of reconciliation and recognition of our indigenous history in this city shouldn't be held up by [a few] people," Mr. Burrows said.

'We want to be equal'

Leslie Spillett is a long-time indigenous leader in Winnipeg and the executive director of Ka Ni Kanichihk, an organization for indigenous women. The organization deliberately chose the Cree term for "those who lead" back in 2001 when such a choice was still relatively rare. Now many other leading service-providers in Winnipeg use Cree or Ojibwa names.

"You can't go anywhere, almost, in Winnipeg without seeing indigenous people. … But I still think that we are the most economically, politically, socially disadvantaged group. That's quite apparent and that needs to stop," Ms. Spillett said.

Tony Niiganii, coordinator for the North End Youth Council and facilitator for the North End Youth Skills Development Strategy in Winnipeg, hands out cookies baked by youth in his program.

In the early 20th century, indigenous people mainly travelled into and out of Winnipeg, but didn't live there. Pass laws made it illegal for First Nations people to leave their reserves without permission until the early 1950s. It's believed there were a few thousand indigenous people in the city at that point, and the population has grown steadily since. Today they face significant disparities relative to their non-indigenous neighbours, including lower levels of education and life expectancy.

"There are indigenous people chipping away making little changes in lots of systems, like the medical system, the justice system, the education system, but we still have a very long ways to go," Ms. Spillett said.

She said the change she has seen in Winnipeg over the last 30 years has been tremendous (the indigenous population in the city grew 38 per cent between 2001 and 2011). But many of the developments – like declaring a year of reconciliation – are small in the grand scheme.

"I think that [the year of reconciliation] is important, it sends a message. But what's the impact? How many more people got houses, got jobs, got out of poverty?" Ms. Spillet said.

"We want to be equal here. We don't want to be second-class citizens. This is our homeland."

Many cultures

From 2001 to 2011, more than 100 communities of 10,000 people or more saw their indigenous population more than double. In part that's explained by the fact that the indigenous population is relatively young and many move to urban centres for further education or work (interestingly StatsCan found they're less likely than other groups to head to the big three of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver), but that's not the whole story.

In places like Corner Brook, for example, where the indigenous population grew more than 360 per cent, the change goes far beyond what migration and natural increase can explain. Between 2006 and 2011 the aboriginal identity population in Canada grew four times faster than the non-aboriginal population. This is partly explained by what's known as "ethnic mobility," the embrace of a previously unacknowledged indigenous identity.

In total, 1.4 million Canadians identified in 2011 as belonging to the three groups – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – that make up the statistical category of aboriginal, or indigenous. That's nearly 30 per cent smaller than the 1.8 million who claim indigenous ancestry.

Ninoondawah Richard speaks as Michael Redhead Champagne hangs a “banner at Meet Me At The Bell Tower (MM@BT) on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg.

But what does indigenous mean? Janice Acoose, who teaches literature at the University of Saskatchewan, said it's a category imposed by federal agencies that obscures the vast diversity in Canada's indigenous peoples. To be Métis or Cree or Mohawk means something particular, but the word indigenous reduces that diversity to "a big brown blob" of sameness, she argues.

"There is not one indigenous culture. We come from many different cultures," Prof. Acoose said. "I try to talk to people about what that means and they shut me off after a second or too. There's no cognizance, no wanting to understand what that means. I think what we're becoming is indigenous, but without a sense of what that means. How that will affect our cities, I don't know. But it worries me."

Prof. Acoose said today she sees indigenous people working in banks, in retail stores, being welcomed in places where once their presence seemed unthinkable. At the university, she sees many more students than ever before, but in some cases they feel out of place, she said.

"Thirty years ago indigenous people were just not welcome in some of the places where today they are a very strong presence. How did that happen? I think it came about because people insisted on it, because there were political activists, teachers, employment and economic changes," Prof. Acoose said.

Canada's cities are changing in ways that reflect not only its immigration policy, which has an outsize impact on its three biggest cities, but also the increasing prominence in many communities of its original peoples. In the years to come, as the indigenous population is projected to grow by as much as one million people by 2036, the weight of numbers will bring further change as governments, businesses and other institutions adapt.