With more than half of First Nations people living off-reserve, cultural preservation relies on creating unified Aboriginal communities in cities.
Sunday was National Aboriginal Day, a chance to celebrate Toronto having the largest Aboriginal community in Ontario, with an estimated 13 per cent of the province’s Aboriginal population.
As many of us gathered for a Sunday afternoon powwow at Fort York, we pondered both our Aboriginal past and future. And what more fitting place than the old fort on the shore of Lake Ontario, site of the famous battle between American invaders and British colonialists assisted by Ojibway allies.
Coming mere days after the release of the groundbreaking report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools, this year’s National Aboriginal Day was also an opportunity to visualize a future without the pain of the colonial past.
But for there to be such a future and for reconciliation to have any meaning, all Canadians—especially non-Aboriginal Canadians—must understand the past emotionally and not merely intellectually, to grasp the full reality of what Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has described as the “cultural genocide” at the heart of hundreds of years of national Aboriginal policy.
The effects of this state-sanctioned evil continues in the pain that all generations of Aboriginal people carry, outwardly and inwardly, visibly and invisibly.
Many Torontonians will associate the modern urban Aboriginal experience solely with the large number of Aboriginal men and women who make their home on the city’s streets. But, as highlighted by the Toronto Aboriginal Research Project (TARP), Indigenous people compose several distinct communities. One of them is a large and growing Aboriginal middle class, “characterized by a stable and social and economic existence, including secure housing, high levels of education and a stable family life,” according to TARP, which is the largest study of its kind.
But those of us fortunate to be in that privileged segment of our community also carry the legacy of cultural genocide in our psychic core.
Many members of this new middle class came to Aboriginal identity recently, through developments such as legal changes to restore status to children born to First Nations women and non-Aboriginal fathers, and the rise of Metis consciousness. In my case, it was finding the hidden branch of the family tree—Mi’kmaq heritage that was a source of shame rather than pride and that was kept under wraps for generations and discovered in the middle of my life. I have carried a status card for only three years.
But my segment of the urban Aboriginal population remains invisible because of a profound internal divide so painful that few of us are prepared to confront it. There is a contest over authenticity in which those of us coming to Aboriginal identity later in life are considered less worthy of our legal status.
As reported in TARP, “The Aboriginal middle class are experiencing varying degrees of discrimination or ‘lateral violence’ from other members of the Aboriginal community.”
In my case, the discrimination takes the form of derogatory references to my light skin tone, which comes from my mother’s white lineage rather than my father’s copper-toned, black-haired Mi’kmaq side of the family.
In response to this tension, many members of the Aboriginal middle class turn away from the political community in favour of teaching their children language and culture, doing the best we can to promote the Indigenous heritage denied to us.
Recognizing this middle class does not negate the reality of homelessness, poverty, and dependence on social services, all of them the result in one way of another of centuries of racism and colonization.
Indeed, the appalling health and economic situation of Aboriginal people cries out for attention by all Canadians, especially middle class Aboriginal people with the capacity for lobbying and political action.
But the divide hinders development of urban influence and leaves Aboriginal people at the political margins, with little say in the public conversation and setting of priorities.
This internal dysfunction speaks to the wider challenges of Aboriginal people, whose constitutional relationship is with federal government (Ottawa has responsibility for “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians”). Federal urban Aboriginal policy is focused on basic social services and crisis intervention, with little concern for creating leadership capacity.
Meanwhile, the Assembly of First Nations is dominated by chiefs more concerned with the reserve residents who may or may not re-elect them.
But Aboriginal people, like Canadians generally, are increasingly urban dwellers. More than half of First Nations people live off-reserve. Building a vibrant and visible Aboriginal community is crucial if we are to stem the powerful forces of assimilation. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated two decades ago, “Aboriginal identity lies at the heart of Aboriginal peoples’ existence; maintaining that identity is an essential and self-validating pursuit for Aboriginal people in cities.”
So the challenge for all of us concerned about our cultural survival is to help all Aboriginal people to live their own lives in authentic ways, to display our communities to the rest of the city and to reclaim Toronto as Aboriginal ground.
Reconciliation begins in our own house. It’s time to make room in the circle for all of us.
Toronto lawyer Glenn Wheeler received a master’s degree from the University of Toronto for his work in Aboriginal law.