Raven Smith and Grant Bishop are fellows in the Action Canada program.
On a drizzling day in September, 2013, tens of thousands of people walked along Vancouver's Georgia Street in support of reconciliation between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. Reflecting Canada's diversity, aboriginal peoples marched alongside Canadians whose ethnic origins spanned the globe. The event symbolized the spirit of as a renewed partnership with Canada's first peoples, and it powerfully showed how Canada's cities are the places where that dialogue can begin.
However, Canada's urban policy makers have yet to bring aboriginal representation consistently to the table. The shameful events in Winnipeg are only the latest example of our divided cities: from Tina Fontaine to Rinelle Harper, there are systemic factors that need attention. All levels of government must now engage urban aboriginal peoples in a partnership to build safe and thriving cities. This means ensuring that those who provide services for urban aboriginal peoples understand aboriginal peoples' cultures and experiences.
Increasingly, our major cities are the places where Canadians build lives and forge relationships. This is no less true for aboriginal peoples in Canada: from the 2011 census, off-reserve aboriginal peoples constitute the fastest growing segment of Canadian society and 56 per cent of aboriginal peoples lived in urban areas, up from 49 per cent in 1996. As of 2011, 25 per cent of Status Indians and 50 per cent of non-status aboriginal peoples lived in Canada's census metropolitan areas.
But, despite the firm presence of aboriginal peoples in urban Canada, its cities have yet to firmly imbed aboriginal culture in urban life. Urban aboriginal peoples' voices are often marginalized in conversations around community services. The landmark 2009-2010 Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, which surveyed the experiences of aboriginal peoples in Canada's major cities, identified that urban aboriginal peoples often feel a negative stigma is attached to their aboriginal identity. As well, non-aboriginal citizens are frequently confused about where aboriginal peoples fit into the "Canadian Mosaic". Simply put, the parallel experiences of aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada's major cities often represent "two solitudes".
Winnipeg is arguably the epicentre of these tensions, with aboriginal peoples constituting 12 per cent of its population – the largest share of any Canadian metro. Its recent municipal election underscored the challenge and opportunity: on one hand, its new mayor, Brian Bowman (proudly Métis, a successful business-minded lawyer and the first indigenous mayor in Winnipeg's history), represents the promise of bridge-building; on the other, his city remains divided. A Probe Research poll identified that three-quarters of Winnipeg residents believe a deep racial gulf separates aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
Public policy is still catching up. Service provision for urban aboriginal peoples has been long plagued by "jurisdictional football" over which level of government has responsibility. However, if our cities are to work for our aboriginal citizens, aboriginal voices must be present in policy discussions concerning health, education, housing, child services and the broad array of public services that impact urban life.
However, the foundations are being laid. Since 1997, the federal government has supported capacity-building and service delivery for urban aboriginal peoples through the Urban Aboriginal Strategy, and the program has recently been be substantially overhauled. Positively, provincial governments are also beginning to turn their attention to the urban aboriginal reality. In 2011, British Columbia launched its "Off-Reserve Aboriginal Action Plan", which aspires to co-ordinate partnerships between provincial agencies and aboriginal organizations.
Wanting to have their voices heard, urban aboriginal peoples have been steadily building their own infrastructure to educate policy-makers about urban aboriginal concerns. For example, founded in 2008 and comprised of an assembly of urban off-reserve aboriginal organizations, the Metro Vancouver Executive Aboriginal Council aims to provide a unified voice to policy makers.
Across the "two solitudes", many of the pieces for a long overdue dialogue are being put in place. Today's question is how to build the trust and understanding to engage with one another. This is the aim of an open public dialogue, which will examine how our cities can build renewed partnerships between non-aboriginal and aboriginal peoples.
In his recent book, The Comeback, John Ralston Saul calls on Canadians to "reinstall a national narrative built upon the centrality of the aboriginal peoples' past, present and future." For too long, aboriginal peoples' voices have been missing in our urban mosaic. Now is the time for all Canadians to fulfill our responsibility to listen.
Action Canada is hosting a free and open public dialogue on urban Aboriginal voices in Canadian cities' policy-making on Nov. 21 at 9:30am at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver