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opinion

A detailed survey on aboriginals who are living in cities is encouraging evidence of their adaptation to contemporary society as a whole, and of eagerness to pursue education - the comparative lack of which is one of the main causes of the poverty of many Canadian aboriginals.

The study by the Environics Institute, released last week, is not Pollyannish. Urban aboriginals say they experience substantial alienation from the criminal justice system. They are still suffering from the consequences of the residential schools, and their desire for greater education is partly frustrated by a lack of money to pay for postsecondary education.

But the results of Environics' polling are a reminder that, to a considerable extent, the recent history of aboriginal Canadians is one of internal immigration within Canada - with some noticeable similarities to the experience of immigrants from outside Canada. For example, non-aboriginal urban Canadians and their aboriginal neighbours give much the same answers to the question whether they are worried about losing their cultural identity; for example 42 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively, say they are not at all troubled on that score. The reasons that draw aboriginals to cities are also similar to those that draw immigrants from abroad - above all, economic opportunities.

Aboriginals in Canadian cities tend to be first-generation urbanites, but they feel at home there, and largely say they are happy, and they mostly intend to stay. At the same time they continue to feel a vivid sense of connection to the reserves they come from, or to other types of home community - that sense of belonging has a strong correlation to their knowledge of their family trees. That again is quite comparable to the emotional involvement that immigrants from outside Canada have with their home countries.

In other words, urban aboriginals are not in any simplistic way assimilating to broader Canadian society, but they have a sense of fitting in, and indeed of making a positive contribution to the cities - a notable contrast to some conspicuous signs of native misery on city streets.

Many reserves are quite isolated, and provide little in the way of earning a living. It is to be hoped that these long-standing communities maintain their traditions, and that none of them will disappear. But the future for most aboriginals is in the cities. The Environics study suggests that, much like other people, aboriginals are doing fairly well with the opportunities - and the stresses - of metropolitan life.