The aboriginal migration to the city

Aboriginal people are becoming urbanized. It's not simply a matter of acquiring a taste for Ikea, Starbucks and the Gap. It means more and more people are moving from the reserve or their aboriginal community to the city.

Aboriginal people are becoming urbanized. It's not simply a matter of acquiring a taste for Ikea, Starbucks and the Gap. It means more and more people are moving from the reserve or their aboriginal community to the city. However, some have been known to develop an affinity for lattes once resettled.

Joseph Boyden holds the Giller Prize after winning it in Toronto on Nov. 11, 2008. Boyden won the prize for his book Through Black Spruce. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

This urbanization has been slow, but steady. According to Statistics Canada data released in 2006, 54 per cent of aboriginal people now live in urban centres, compared to 49 per cent in 2001. It was 47 per cent in 1996.

And now, one of these urban aboriginal people has become known for winning Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, as Joseph Boyden did last month.

Boyden is a Toronto boy, raised in Willowdale, and he's also the first aboriginal person to win the award. He has been described as Canadian, with Scottish, Irish and Métis heritage.

But he tends to write only about aboriginal people. His latest book, Through Black Spruce — for which he won the acclaimed prize — centres on characters who have a toehold in the big city and in a northern aboriginal community.  It's hard to say how much of the novel is based on his own experiences, of perhaps crossing the divide between the world of his aboriginal roots and his big city reality.

But his writings seem to indicate an intimate knowledge of having lived in both worlds. Boyden has professed a strong identification with his aboriginal heritage, vowing at the awards ceremony to always write about and celebrate the First Nations of Canada.

Boyden and his characters are representative of growing trends among urban aboriginal people in more ways than one. His characters tend to be torn between the pull of their home community and culture and life in urban centres, with all its opportunity and shortcomings.

Mirroring the reality

This seems to mirror the reality of many aboriginal people. The migration patterns among them indicate frequent moves back and forth between their home communities and urban centres, migration patterns that were noted in Not Strangers in these Parts, Urban Aboriginal Peoples, edited by David Newhouse and Evelyn Peters and published in 2003 as part of a Government of Canada Policy Research Initiative.   

On the other hand, Boyden himself represents a growing segment of the urban aboriginal population that seems to have made a sort of peace with the differences and potential conflict between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. These types are able to operate in both worlds with relative ease. There's even a label for them — bicultural.

These bicultural types appear to be fairly young and educated. Urban aboriginal people on the whole are younger than the rest of the population. According to Statistics Canada data collected in 2001, about half of the population in major urban centres is under the age of 25.

Also, if Winnipeg, the city with the largest proportion of aboriginal people in Canada, is any indication, the people still moving to the city are fairly young as well. A report prepared by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in 2007 found that half of the aboriginal people migrating to that city were between the ages of 20 and 39. The same report cited education and employment as the primary motivations for the moves.

Statistics Canada data from 2001 shows employment rates, education and income levels for urban aboriginal dwellers in all major cities had risen over the previous two decades.

School attendance among aboriginal youth aged 15 to 24 rose substantially from 1981 to 2001, while the proportion of young adults aged 25 to 34 who had finished post-secondary education rose as well. In most cities, aboriginal people with university degrees were employed on par with their non-aboriginal counterparts.

Income gap shrinking

Meanwhile, the gap between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal median income from employment sources also closed in most of the urban centres from 1981 to 2001.

A Statistics Canada report published in 2005 found that the number of aboriginal people making $40,000 or more rose nearly four-fold, which means an increase from slightly more than 7,400 to 25,500 people making more money.

It's far too soon to declare that an aboriginal middle class has been established, but it seems imminent. And this aboriginal middle class, if Boyden is any indication, seems determined to stay true to its aboriginal roots.

Just because you've left the reserve or the North doesn't necessarily mean you've left aboriginal people behind — a vast percentage of aboriginal people in cities continue working for urban aboriginal organizations, join groups and bodies to combat barriers that aboriginal people face in cities and elsewhere and become social workers, lawyers, judges, nurses and doctors with the aim of improving the lives of aboriginal people.

They also become authors. Despite now living and teaching in New Orleans, Boyden obviously continues to identify strongly with his aboriginal roots.