Urban Aboriginal Round Tables: Community engagement from an Indigenous perspective

By Cities for People / We Are Cities’ Urban Aboriginal Convenor – Ted Norris

The role of Urban Aboriginal Convenor for the We Are Cities national movement has enabled me to continue the work that I have been doing for many years – and that is to connect people and ideas through a common vision. Although there were distinct differences among the participating cities, each round table host and every single one of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants approached their engagement “in a good way and with a good mind and heart” as many Elders will proclaim during ceremony.

The tone of the four Urban Aboriginal round tables was one of overall optimism despite some thorny challenges and complex barriers that continue to hamper many Aboriginal people. Laughter and good natured teasing is an integral part of any gathering of Aboriginal people – whether sitting around a camp fire, celebrating family milestones or participating in talking circles.


We Are Cities Roundtable in Ottawa (Photo: Leah Snyder)

The overarching theme of these round tables was, not surprisingly, community engagement from an Indigenous lens. I want to delve into more detail about what this really means to the almost 60% of First Nation, Métis and Inuit who now live in urban areas.

First, a quick overview of some stats*:

  • The Aboriginal population was 1,400,685 in 2011, up from 1,172,790 in 2006 making it the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population.
  • Amongst the Aboriginal population, 46% of individuals are under age 25, compared to 29% for the rest of the Canadian population.
  • Aboriginal peoples represent 2.8% of the Canadian population, but account for 18% of the federally incarcerated population**.

In 2017 the life expectancy for the total Canadian population is projected to be 79 years for men and 83 years for women. Among the Aboriginal population the Inuit have the lowest projected life expectancy in 2017, of 64 years for men and 73 years for women. The Métis and First Nations populations have similar life expectancies, at 73-74 years for men and 78-80 years for women.

*All stats from Statistics Canada
**From Correctional Services Canada

The “Idle No More” movement, the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women (see the Native Women’s Association of Canada), First Nations education on & off reserve, and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), are a few recent and important examples that have focused country-wide attention on Aboriginal issues as never before. But, as indicated earlier, it is not all dire news.


Sisters In Spirit silent march for missing and murdered aboriginal women in Whitehorse, YKT (Photo: Yukon News)

“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Louis Riel – July 4, 1885

We have a burgeoning arts and culture scene – Indigenous writing, theatre, music, film and visual arts – being produced and recognized nationally and internationally. Aboriginal people are participating in local, regional and national politics in record numbers – and successfully advocating for change from within established European-based governance models. Our Aboriginal business leaders embody an entrepreneurial spirit that is countless generations old.

There is reason for optimism and this positive attitude came out loud and clear in the We Are Cities urban Aboriginal round tables. For the most part, urban Aboriginal people have very similar concerns and needs as their non-Aboriginal neighbours – safe streets, access to efficient transportation choices and affordable housing options.

Some unique aspects of the urban Aboriginal round table discussions in Ottawa and Vancouver, for example, were around the recognition of sacred and cultural spaces in the urban environment. In the National Capital Region,    is situated in the Ottawa River between Gatineau and Ottawa and is an historical meeting and trading place for the Algonquin peoples of Ontario and Quebec. Efforts are underway to preserve the integrity of the space for future generations, despite pressures from real estate developers (you can read about ongoing discussions about development plans for Victoria Island, and criticisms that have arisen from both First Nations and non-First Nations communities, here, here, and here).

Victoria Island

Victoria Island on the Ottawa River, Traditional Algonquin Territory (Photo: Rob Huntley)

In Vancouver, the Salish Sea Village concept is being touted as a potential model for other developments across the country that wish to celebrate the historical past and the current contributions of Indigenous peoples. Education and awareness are key to cement an on-going connectedness between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal interests. Efforts to bridge cultural divides will have long term, lasting benefits on all sides.

The important role of Elders and other traditional knowledge keepers was highlighted in Brandon, MB, as well as the other round tables. An Elders Council at City Hall would go a long way toward increased understanding and acceptance of First Nation, Métis and Inuit cultures and traditions. The spiritual element also includes the need for traditional ceremony and this was discussed at length at the Brandon University round table. Participants want to see more tolerance towards smudging in hospitals, schools and other public buildings for ceremonial purposes.

Recently at a youth event in a Thunder Bay hotel, I was met with an incredulous “of course” when I inquired about the possibility of our elder burning sweetgrass and tobacco in the meeting room for a traditional smudging / cleansing ceremony. It is all about attitude, and a relaxing of non-smoking restrictions for certain ceremonial occasions.

Youth leadership was high on the list of discussions at the Winnipeg round table hosted by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. As posted by Ma Mawi,

“The round table provided youth with an opportunity to share their dreams for the future of Winnipeg and first steps towards this dream.”

It was gratifying to see, just within the relatively short time period of the round table session, a growing self-confidence from some of the youth who have already gone on to actively develop their leadership skills. There is no limit to what these youth can do! But, as they themselves spoke about, they require the educational supports, safe streets, increased sports and cultural opportunities and an end to poverty to help make their dreams a reality.

Ma Mawi roundtable

We Are Cities roundtable participants at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg (Photo: Adesuwa Ero)

We are fortunate in Canada to have a number of existing program and institutional supports for the urban Aboriginal population. One of the prime examples is the National Aboriginal Friendship Centre movement (NAFC) which boasts 118 friendship centres across the country. The First Nations University in Regina and the Gabriel Dumont Institute are just two of a number of outstanding post-secondary educational institutions. Small and large businesses have a solid network through the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). Their model is bolstered by the efforts of the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy partners.

The urban Aboriginal landscape is vast. The voices of Inuit, Métis and First Nations will be key in developing an Urban Agenda that truly works for all citizens. To that end, a coalition of like-minded partners should be convened and encouraged to continue the momentum started by the We Are Cities initiative.

Note: You can read more from Ted Norris on the We Are Cities website, where he shared thoughts on using cultural practices creatively to adapt the We Are Cities toolkit to generate new ideas.


Thinking Hats at the We Are Cities Roundtable in Ottawa (Photo: Ted Norris)

We want a country in which:

  • public, private and social sectors are engaged in active efforts to close the gap between the socioeconomic wellbeing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
  • the public sector, private investors and philanthropists separately and collaboratively deploy financial capital to create positive social and environmental impact
  • social innovation is an integral part of Canada’s innovation ecosystem, enabling civic institutions to co-create policies, initiatives and programs that enable citizens to contribute a diversity of skills and perspectives to Canadian society
  • public, private and civil society sectors act collaboratively and courageously to advance human thriving and address shared challenges
  • humans’ social and economic footprint is in balance with the natural ecosystems that sustain life.