Most urban aboriginal people opt to stay in city

Almost half of Canadian aboriginal people are city dwellers, and a study by the Environics Institute suggests many have no plans to return to their home reserve.


Researchers interviewed 2,614 status and non-status First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in 11 cities across Canada: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ont., Montreal, Toronto, Halifax and Ottawa (Inuit only), between March and October 2009. The one-on-one interviews lasted one to two hours or longer.

A separate telephone survey was conducted with 2,501 non-aboriginal urban Canadians living in these same cities (except Ottawa) between April and May 2009. The results of this part of the survey are considered accurate to 2.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Almost half of Canadian aboriginal people are city dwellers, and a study released to the CBC in April 2010 by the Environics Institute suggests many have no plans to return to their home reserve.

The national Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study of 2,614 self-identified aboriginal people found that while many native Canadians maintain ties with their home communities, only three in 10 first-generation urban aboriginal people have moved back to their home communities since moving to the city.

"Notwithstanding the sense of connection majorities of urban aboriginal peoples have to their communities of origin, the large majority of urban aboriginal peoples feel their current city of residence is home," the study said. "When asked 'where is home for you?' seven in 10 (71 per cent) UAPS participants say it is their current city of residence."

Native Canadians in 11 urban centres across the country participated in the study, which included person-to-person interviews conducted from March to October 2009. The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study set out to examine the attitudes of native Canadians who call the city home. Non-aboriginal people were also interviewed in a separate poll.

Half of the country's 1,172,790 aboriginal Canadians lived in urban centres, according to the 2006 census. Nine in 10 of those interviewed in the study said they liked living in their city at least somewhat.

"Within [Canada's] cities, urban aboriginal peoples are seeking to become a significant and visible part of the urban landscape," the study said. "They like living in their cities and majorities feel they can make a positive difference in their urban homes. Notably, they are as likely as non-aboriginal people to feel this way."

Eighty-two per cent of participants said they were "very proud" of their specific aboriginal identity, that is, First Nations, Métis or Inuk. Slightly fewer — 70 per cent — said the same about being Canadian.

And most were confident that they could retain cultural ties in an urban setting. Six in 10 were completely or somewhat unworried about losing contact with their culture, while a minority were totally (17 per cent) or somewhat (21 per cent) concerned.

Perceptions of racism

The Environics Institute

Ashley Julian, Halifax

'It's so weird to say I'm an urban aboriginal because no matter where I go, I continuously say I'm from Indian Brook [N.S.] and that's my home community. But when I'm talking to people from home, they ask where I'm from, I say that I'm from Halifax.'

Damon Johnston, Winnipeg

'Self-determination, that is the motivating factor. So the question off-reserve and in cities is 'what form does that take over time?' We're not going to get there overnight but we're certainly on that path.'

Tina Pisutkie, Montreal

'When my mother came to Montreal she didn't want to take the bus, she'd rather walk everywhere because she was afraid of white people. People who come here know about mainstream culture only by what they saw on TV.'

Participants in the study did note, however, that while they have a strong sense of pride in their culture and their country, a majority continue to experience negative stereotypes.

"If there is a single urban aboriginal experience, it is the shared perception among First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit, across cities, that they are stereotyped negatively," the report said. "Indeed, most report that they have personally experienced negative behaviour or unfair treatment because of who they are."

Almost nine in 10 of those native Canadians interviewed said they believe others behave unfairly or negatively toward aboriginal people. Seventy per cent said they had been teased or insulted because of their background.

Many of the aboriginal respondents also said they thought other Canadians held negative stereotypes against them. Almost three in four perceive assumptions about addiction problems in the aboriginal community, while many felt negative stereotypes about laziness (30 per cent), lack of intelligence (20 per cent) and poverty (20 per cent).

One participant in the study said the stereotypes tend to be twofold — aboriginal peoples as both romantic ideals and troublemakers.

"There's that impression of [the] noble savage, there's like the exotic romantic view, and generally we're viewed as problematic," one participant said. "You know, blocking bridges, protesting and always looking for a free lunch."

In contrast, the survey of non-aboriginal city dwellers found generally good impressions of native Canadians. Researchers labelled 45 per cent of urban non-native Canadians as "cultural romantics" who believe in the artistic and cultural contributions of aboriginal people to Canadian society. As well, those survey respondents were optimistic that the lives of aboriginal people will improve in the next generation.

However, the survey found 24 per cent could be described as "dismissive naysayers" who tend to hold more negative impressions.

Education a top priority

Participants in the study were also asked about their goals, which closely mirrored those of many Canadians. For example, respondents said their top aspirations were to complete their education (28 per cent), start or raise a family (24 per cent) and have a satisfying career (22 per cent).

Many participants also saw education as a top priority for themselves and future generations, but reported financial cost as a major obstacle to post-secondary studies.

Schooling is also a top priority for future generations. When asked how they would like their children's and grandchildren's lives to be different from their own, one in five mentioned education. Slightly fewer hoped for a solid cultural connection (18 per cent) and a life without racism (17 per cent).

The study suggested, however, that many aboriginal people are clearly concerned about how to pay for that future. Money was cited as the biggest barrier to getting a post-secondary education among 36 per cent of those planning to attend — and 45 per cent of those already enrolled in — a university or college.

Little faith in justice system

One out of every two urban native Canadians interviewed said they have had serious involvement with the Canadian justice system in the past decade: 52 per cent have been a crime witness or a victim, or have been arrested or charged.  

Of those people, nearly four in 10 said they had been treated unfairly by the system, while 57 per cent believed they received a fair shake.  

The participants also tended to lack faith in the justice system. More than half of aboriginal respondents had little (33 per cent) to no (22 per cent) confidence, while six per cent had a great deal.  

A majority of respondents — 56 per cent — supported the idea of creating an aboriginal-only justice system separate from mainstream Canadian courts.