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Jacob Alexis overcame bullying and racial abuse growing up in Alberta. Now he helps other native youths as a basketball coach in Edmonton.

jason franson The Globe and Mail

At times, Jacob Alexis feels as if he's an outsider in his own city, a target for slurs just because he's aboriginal.

It's been this way whenever he's lived outside Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, a reserve about 70 kilometres west of Edmonton. In his grade-school days in Calgary, Mr. Alexis recalls being beaten by older boys who ridiculed his ancestry and his long, dark hair. Simply wearing a new pair of Nike basketball shoes to shinny one day made him a target.

"Did welfare cheques pay for your shoes?" he remembers neighbourhood kids taunting.

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Yet city life, scars and all, has helped Mr. Alexis accomplish goals once seemingly unattainable: He graduated college last year, secured a graphic-design job and coaches youth basketball. At 25, he can hope for, and achieve, more than his parents could, an optimism shared by many of the country's young urban aboriginals.

"I think it will only get better as the generations move on," said Mr. Alexis, who has lived in Edmonton for nearly a decade and is engaged to be married. "For my kids, I know there will be a huge spectrum."

Several measures of well-being show urban aboriginals are gaining ground. High-school attendance and employment improved between the 2001 and 2006 national censuses, the most recent snapshot available. Fewer children lived in low-income families, average work income increased and more people completed postsecondary education.

Yet the censuses also show aboriginal residents still lag far behind other city dwellers. They're more likely to be jobless or earn less money. More of their children live in poverty and fewer of them graduate high school. Many aboriginals move frequently, making education and employment training tougher to complete.

These disparities have many native and municipal leaders calling for a new pact for Canada's rapidly growing urban aboriginal population - such as a landmark accord initiative in Edmonton, begun six years ago, which established aboriginals as equal partners in seeking solutions. Slightly more than half of Canada's 1.2 million Indian, Métis and Inuit people live in urban centres. In some respects, they've been caught in a jurisdictional quagmire, even among organizations representing aboriginal people.

Indian reserves and remote Inuit communities have long been the priority of the federal government and many native groups, while several provinces have focused on aiding Métis settlements. Only a small fraction of the billions of government dollars spent each year is targeted to the urban aboriginal community.

"The policy lens is not quite keeping pace with the shift in the demographics of where the needs of aboriginal people are," said Jeffrey Cyr, executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres. "They're not having the policy conversation about … how to respond to it, how to integrate and construct services amongst levels of government."

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The pronounced shift to cities, big and small, started roughly a quarter-century ago. Higher birth rates, greater self-identification and increasing migration from Indian reserves and Métis settlements for employment and education opportunities have propelled urban aboriginal population growth. Their numbers swelled 45 per cent between 1996 and 2006. In another 10 years, more than 60 per cent of aboriginals could be living in urban centres, Mr. Cyr estimated.

Yet Ryan Walker, chairman of University of Saskatchewan's regional and urban planning program, said that cities tend to deal with aboriginals in "the wrong way." Dr. Walker argues that aboriginals warrant a different approach than newcomers to Canada, many of whom experience similar socioeconomic disparities and discrimination. The key difference, he said: Aboriginals have been in Canada for centuries and are entitled to a degree of autonomy, even within a city.

Some municipalities are paying heed. Toronto, for instance, is working on an aboriginal strategy that aims to improve access to social services and strengthen economic prospects. At the heart of this plan - which will come before city council in the fall - will be a recognition of the principle of aboriginal self-determination.

But the leader on this front is Edmonton. Alberta's capital has the second-largest urban aboriginal community in Canada: 52,100 Indians, Métis and Inuit called the region home in 2006. Its population has increased an astronomical 8,358 per cent since 1951, when only 616 Edmontonians identified themselves as aboriginal. By some estimates, the city is expected in the near future to overtake Winnipeg as having the largest urban aboriginal population.

In 2005, Edmonton and its native community created the Urban Aboriginal Accord, which aims to address native issues. A survey conducted for the accord found that four in 10 felt Edmonton was an unwelcoming and unfriendly city to aboriginals. "They're a major part of our community, and yet they were kind of separated from our community," said former city councillor Ron Hayter, a long-time champion of the accord's creation.

Crafting the accord took time. Edmonton drew from the lessons of an unsuccessful attempt in Winnipeg, ensuring its aboriginal community was driving the dialogue, not consulted after the fact. Edmonton had to show its native residents it was serious about developing a better and more inclusive relationship, Mr. Hayter said.

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"A paternalistic approach doesn't work," he noted. "The aboriginal communities in Canada today have made tremendous strides and they don't like to be treated as some kind of wards of the non-aboriginal community."

Edmonton's aboriginal leaders say the accord has made a difference. The city now has a four-person aboriginal relations office and formally adopted the Wicihitowin Circle as a model for working with the community. Based on indigenous traditions, the talking circles are centred on the notion of shared responsibility and involve aboriginal people, agencies and all three levels of government. Issues that have been tackled include homelessness, education and poverty.

Statistically, it's too early to tell whether the accord has helped improve the well-being of Edmonton's aboriginals. Mayor Stephen Mandel knows more work remains to make the city a welcoming and prosperous home for aboriginal residents. More job opportunities and better housing are required, he said, as well as a deeper understanding of the challenges aboriginals face as result of historical abuses and systemic discrimination.

Mr. Mandel would also like to see greater funding support from Ottawa for municipalities with large aboriginal populations. "The accord was the start of it and only the start," he said. "We have a long way to go, a heck of a long way to go."

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