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Who speaks for aboriginal peoples in Canada? In theory, the Assembly of First Nations represents Indian peoples, while Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis National Council represent the other two aboriginal identity groups. In practice, things are more complicated.

The institutional structures of aboriginal governance were created for a population that was largely rural. For instance, the leader of the AFN is elected by reserve-based chiefs across the country. But many native people don't live on reserves. Indeed, a majority of Canada's aboriginal people live in urban areas. (Just how large a majority will soon be revealed in the 2011 census figures.) As the country now gives new consideration to aboriginal issues – Chief Theresa Spence's hunger strike, the Idle No More movement, the Federal Court decision on the Métis – it is important to consider whether the realities and concerns of urban aboriginal people are being adequately represented.

There has been very little attention given to the burgeoning aboriginal population in Canada's cities, so this part of our mosaic is among the least understood. To help remedy this gap, the Environics Institute for Survey Research conducted the first major study of urban aboriginal people in Canada, which was released in 2010. The purpose of the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (UAPS) was to understand and systematically document the lives and experiences of these individuals – their identity, values and aspirations. The cornerstone of the study was an in-depth, face-to-face survey of 2,614 Indian, Métis and Inuit people living in 11 Canadian cities. (Most of the interviewers were aboriginals themselves.)

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Among many other questions, the survey asked: "Thinking about both aboriginal political organizations and Canadian political parties, is there one that you feel best represents you?" Twenty-seven per cent named one of the national aboriginal organizations, including the AFN (13 per cent), the Métis National Council (10 per cent) and the Native Women's Association of Canada (2 per cent). Roughly the same number (26 per cent) said one of the national political parties best represented them. And about the same proportion again (27 per cent) said that no party or organization represented them. In short, there is no one organization that seems to speak on behalf of the urban aboriginal population of Canada.

(The problem of representing large groups of people in political processes is, of course, by no means limited to aboriginal peoples. Canadians agonize endlessly about the legitimacy of minority governments, the fairness of party nomination processes and so on.)

How are aboriginal people faring in our cities? The UAPS revealed some significant and even surprising insights:

Asked what they most want to achieve in their lives, urban aboriginal people cited the same kinds of aspirations that other Canadians might name: completing their education (28 per cent), caring for their families (24 per cent), achieving career or job satisfaction (22 per cent) and home ownership (19 per cent). Eleven per cent said they want to travel.

Most aboriginal people living in cities (71 per cent) consider their city "home," not simply a transitional place to get a job or go to school. And two-thirds (65 per cent) say they like living in the city "a lot."

Overall, most (58 per cent) describe themselves as very happy; an additional 36 per cent are somewhat happy. Among those who report high job satisfaction, 80 per cent are very happy.

At the same time, most (70 per cent) report having been personally discriminated against because of their aboriginal identity, and 89 per cent believe that non-aboriginal people have a generally negative impression of aboriginal people. In spite of this, 88 per cent say they are very or somewhat proud to be Canadian.

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If these lives – shaped by discrimination, but also characterized by happiness, striving and a vision of the good life that is shared by Canadians of many backgrounds – sound unfamiliar to non-aboriginal Canadians, we might ask ourselves why.

We believe that the conversation about aboriginal issues in Canada can only advance meaningfully if contemporary, urban realities are considered alongside the legacy of colonialism and the urgent challenges facing many reserves and rural communities. Aboriginal people living in cities share a history with their families and friends on reserve – and may care deeply about questions like resource-revenue sharing – but their daily realities are distinct and their identities and aspirations must also inform the conversation.

It was once conventional wisdom that aboriginal people living in cities were just passing through – pursuing temporary work or fleeing problems on reserves, their "real" homes. UAPS refutes both of those ideas: For most urban aboriginal people, the city is their "real" home, and they have come there not as refugees but, like so many other Canadian urbanites, as individuals in search of rewarding educational and economic opportunities, as well as the other benefits of city life.

These urban residents may be supportive of the objectives of their aboriginal brothers and sisters in rural and on-reserve settings, but other forms of justice may interest them just as much, such as being free of discrimination as they pursue opportunities in urban, multicultural Canada. To say that many aboriginal people make up part of the mosaic of our cities is not to deny their special status as first peoples or to gloss over their unique experiences resulting from colonialism. But to ignore the fact that more than half a million aboriginal people live in cities – and that for these people, justice, equity and recognition may take different forms – is to miss a big part of the picture.

Michael Adams is president of the Environics Institute. Ginger Gosnell-Myers is from the Nisga'a and Kwakwak'awakw first nations in British Columbia and is the former UAPS public engagement director and project manager.

The Federal Court of Canada, not the Supreme Court as incorrectly stated in Tuesday's print version and earlier online versions of this column, recently made a decision concerning the Métis.

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