I wrote this post a year ago but, out of nervousness never posted it. Canada’s racial stalemate around First Nations-Non-First Nations issues makes it challenging to feel talk about this subject. But with conversation with and urging from First Nation colleagues, along with the release of the Urban Aboriginal People’s Survey (UAPS) has persuaded me that this conversation needs to be shared, and if not one talks about it, that would be a bigger problem. I don’t claim deep expertise as an observer of First Nation politics but I do follow it much more closely than the average person. What I’ve been witnessing is astonishing and, potentially explosive.
For the past few years I’ve become increasingly persuaded that First Nation’s Community is in the midst of a seismic shift. Pick up and read a copy of the UAPS. It is a dramatic document. One that shows the underlying demographics that are driving this shift. Want to know the two most important lines in the document? Here they are:
1) In 2006 half the First Nations Population in Canada lived in urban areas, with almost a third living in cities with 100,000+ people
2) Pursuing higher education is the leading life aspiration of urban Aboriginal peoples today.
For Canadian baby boomers – and possibly First Nations themselves – the conversation and identity of First Nations was focused on the reserve. The defining moment of the 80’s and early 90’s were Oka and the Meech Lake debates. Here the emphasis was (understandably and justly) on land rights and treaty obligations. The result was a conversation (not always civil, and not always using words) between First Nations and Canadians that helped define the identity of both groups.
For younger First Nation and non-First Nation (Xers and Millennials) I would argue this conversation has shifted. The defining issues in the conversation are less tied to place and tend to be broader in theme – residential schools, poverty and/or addiction. These reflect the demographic shift noted above. As First Nations have urbanized, so to have the issues. These issues are indeed a social crisis that Canadians need to address and that frequently do not receive much attention given the size and scope of the issue. Again, however, this conversation has certainly defined First Nations in the minds of Canadians – and in an often less than positive view – something that is both unfair and creating a new racial stalemate in the country.
But it is that second line I wish to zero in on. Less well understood by most Canadians is the sheer number (in both absolute and relative terms) of first nations attending college and university, or even working in high paying, knowledge economy jobs. There is a tsunami of young educated first nations young people who are radically changing the make up, complexion and identity of the First Nations community.
Why is this? Because a growing number of First Nations people have access to good jobs, urban communities, effective public services – in short to well managed economies and governments. This has numerous implications. The first is that “urban” is going to become a bigger part of the First Nation identity. Moreover, this process will not be an easy one, especially given that this group does not have an equal voice, either within the mainstream culture, or even within the First Nations community. The UAPS survey found that 40% of status and 50% of non-status First Nations felt no political organization represented them. No mainstream party and not even the AFN (or the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples
But there is a deeper implication. My conversation with First Nations colleagues suggest that increasingly, many looking home at their own reserves and wonder – why aren’t there effective public services, accountable governance and good jobs there? Everyone agrees that imperialism and government structures contribute to the problem, and many also conclude that first nations’ mismanagement is a significant contributor to the problem (see quote below). In other words highly educated First Nation millennials are increasingly wanting to challenge their boomer leaders who are the powerholders on reserve. My sense is that there is real tension between these two age cohorts, exasperated by an urban/rural and educational divide. In addition, a number of conversations have lead me to believe that, in many cases, the community elders, are siding with the millennials in this conversation. Thus, this is is not simply a youth uprising, it is a complex conversation that – in an overly simplified description – is pitting elders and young First Nations against many boomer powerholders.
This has important implications for first nations/non-aboriginal relations (also see quote below) but the real dynamic is internal. There is a First Nations renaissance occurring. Like a tsunami a large talented, ambitious, smart generation of First Nations is emerging from universities across the country and they are shifting the conversation, not with other Canadians (that will come) but within First Nations communities. Obviously this is a sensitive topic (as, again, Helin’s alludes to) and hence my nervousness around this post.
“Aboriginal people are reluctant to speak publicly about these issues [poor governance] because they do not wish to provide grist for the political right in Canada who many feel are racist, and have no real interest in actually trying to make the situation better (though often there is a sizable, but silent contingent that supports the publication of such issues in what might be considered right-of-centre publications, because they are regarded as only telling the truth and trying to make things better for the ordinary Aboriginal folks). Generally, non-aboriginal observers have been reluctant to raise this issue as well because, in the current climate of political correctness, they might automatically be labelled as racists. Even the many Chiefs and Councils that are running honest governments in the best interests of their members feel compelled to defend against such reported abuses, because they fear their activities may become tarred with a brush that does not apply in their particular circumstances. Usually when this matter is raised publicly, there are entrenched positions on both sides of the debate and little communications as to how to solve these problems.”
In addition to trying to quietly challenge boomer powerholders this cohort of urban first nations faces additional challenges. On the one hand they are facing all sorts of abandonment issues – communities that are simultaneously disappointed that “they left” for urban centres, eager to have them return, and threatened by the knowledge and skills they have learned and could bring back. Indeed, I’ve talked to many who are struggling with raising issues of governance and building sustainable communities while sustaining a respect for authority that many want to adhere to, but that sometimes prevents them from voicing their concerns, accessing the levers of power, or contributing in ways they feel they are able. In addition, many are meeting and marrying other first nations (but often not from their band) or non-aboriginals and so are confronting (through their children) all sorts of identity issues about what it means to be first nation growing up off-reserve or with mixed heritage parents. Indeed, this is also a generation of First Nations that, with urbanization, is experiencing mulitculturalism for the first time. Canada’s major urban centres, with the diversity of backgrounds, is a far cry from the biracial world (with First Nations and mostly white non-aboriginal populations living side by side but segregated) that defines much of Canada’s rural space.
This is obviously a simplified narrative – one that does not pay tribute to the nuanced challenges and successes of many nations. But my readings and my conversations with first nations’ friends and acquaintances suggests this is all bubbling under the surface. I’m not sure if there is interest in the poll capturing what I think is an emerging intergenerational conversation within First Nations communities, but my sense is that this issue is becoming a more important driver of First Nations politics (one member, one vote in the AFN as an example), and in particular, urban first nations politics.
Hope this is thought provoking.