Indigenous people moving from reserves to cities need transition services like those given to refugees in Canada, says Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
"Much like we do for new Canadians, including helping them find apartments and getting IDs and all those things we think are easy to do — they're not quite so easy," she said.
"We already expect and accept that new Canadians need a lot of help when they come here. But we don't think about that so easily about our Indigenous people when they move from community to city."
North Wilson stressed that point at the United Nations in New York City on Monday, when she spoke at a conference during the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
She was part of a 16-member delegation that made presentations to the UN and one of five people who talked about the risks facing Indigenous Canadians transitioning from life on a rural reserve to life in an urban environment.
Other members of the delegation included representatives from the University of Winnipeg's Global College, the Southern Chiefs Organization and Ma Mawi Chi Itata Centre.
North Wilson said she hoped to make people understand that "it's not as easy as people might think."
"People might take for granted that because we live in Canada, we should know how the city operates and runs … and know the social norms and everything like that," she said.
"But when we grow up, especially in the isolated communities, when we don't have a lot of access to the city, when we move there, it's very foreign to us."
'If we're expecting our people to be productive citizens of society, well then you have to create those opportunities to make that happen.' - Sheila North Wilson
Aside from learning to deal with racism, just knowing how things work, such as public transit and revolving doors, can be baffling, North Wilson said. And that can lead to a dangerous downward spiral, she said.
"We see it, for example, in the high rates of numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the poverty and the lack of jobs [for Indigenous people] in our cities," she said.
"Our malls are examples of that — we don't see our people working in them. We need to start changing that and working with the business community, the private community, and government to think differently.
"We need those entry-level jobs when we start getting going."
North Wilson herself struggled years ago when she moved to Winnipeg from Oxford House, a remote community about 580 kilometres north of the city, to attend high school. She was nervous and naive and and her grades tumbled as a result.
"I didn't know how to talk to people. I was giggly because I didn't know how to relate, so I looked weird and people made fun of me," she said.
The vastness of New York reminded her of that time. Going there from Winnipeg was a lot like the leap from reserve to city.
"It's daunting and a little scary at times."
But those feelings in New York were soon replaced by promise, she said, and the reaction to her presentation was "empowering."
"Many different people from different walks of life and different NGOs … they said, 'Yes, how can we offer support?'" said North Wilson, who hopes those connections will lead to positive developments.
She also spoke with Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef, who led the Canadian delegation to New York.
"Of course, [she said] they're going to take it back and talk about it," she said.
"But we're going to keep pushing on this, because if we're expecting our people to be productive citizens of society, well, then you have to create those opportunities to make that happen."