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As the aboriginal population becomes more urban, a new study's manager says, non-natives need to understand more about the realities of aboriginal life today.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It is a failure of Canada's imagination that its original inhabitants continue to suffer the most distorted stereotypes of any non-white group.

Canada's urban natives, who now comprise half of all Métis, first nations and Inuit, feel they are viewed negatively by the larger society, even as they display a high level of tolerance for other cultures.

What is even more striking is that, according to a study by Environics Institute, many non-aboriginals recognize their comic-book characterization of natives, and acknowledge that real discrimination exists.

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The federal government, the provinces and aboriginals themselves need to broaden this unsophisticated image, which focuses only on the social challenges natives face, while obscuring the many success stories.

While some non-aboriginals are "inattentive skeptics" who are uninformed about natives, others - especially in Toronto are "cultural romantics," who appreciate native art and culture, but are unlikely to know any actual aboriginals. "Connected advocates," on the other hand, are most likely to support the achievements of aboriginals, and to understand the role discrimination plays.

These findings are based on the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, which probed the views of both aboriginals and non-aboriginals in 11 Canadians cities. This week, Toronto results were released.

Only through increased engagement and interaction between aboriginals and non-aboriginals will negative stereotypes be eroded. That means bolstering cultural exchange programs, and making sure all primary and secondary-school students are exposed to native culture and history - as well as to their modern-day triumphs and challenges. "Too many Canadians view aboriginals as relics of history," said Ginger Gosnell-Myers, a member of the Nisga'a First Nation, and the study's project manager. "They need to understand the realities of aboriginal life today."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the treatment of natives sent to residential schools just three years ago. But the study found that few non-aboriginal residents in Toronto are aware of this debilitating legacy, which saw more 150,000 aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families and placed in schools whose aim was to "kill the Indian in the child."

With a growing number of aboriginals now living off-reserve, it is crucial they not face systemic barriers to socio-economic advancement. Public discourse and academic research in Canada have focused on barriers that newcomers from Asia and the Middle East face. However, the experience of urban aboriginals also needs to be highlighted, and strategies devised to ensure they have access to education and labour market opportunities.

A greater dialogue between aboriginals and non-aboriginals won't necessarily result in greater harmony - but will engender a deeper appreciation for the challenges they face, as well as the diverse contributions of their vibrant communities.

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