First Nations Renaissance: Or Why Canada's next First Nation debate won't involve you

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.

13 thoughts on “First Nations Renaissance: Or Why Canada's next First Nation debate won't involve you

  1. Dan Wilson

    David, because i have read other of your musings and found them interesting, even where i disagreed, and because you approached this posting with caution and respect, i will try to respond in kind. Let's start with your two important observations from the UAPS. First, the statistic you quote about residency is incorrect. According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada's Indian Registry, approximately 55% of First Nations (status Indians) live on reserve, while the other 45% are off-reserve, who are then split between urban and rural communities. You can only get your number if you include non-status Indians in the First Nations number, but those people have no reserves to live on, so they inhabit urban Canada at roughly the 83% rate that others do. By the way, urban is defined as more than 1,000 people in a community, which strikes me as a little out of date, but that allows Statistics Canada to maintain continuity of comparison over time.Second, it is the aspiration of young people of all kinds to get higher education and it is hardly a new phenomenon for First Nations youth. Of course, during the residential school period, there were many reasons other than a lack of funding not to pursue it, so you may have a point about the post-residential school population being different from their predecessors in that sense. Nonetheless, it is not a new attitude among First Nations and should not be treated as a sign of a shift of any kind. That really is a little offensive.If your two fundamentals are a little flawed, your appeal to the “authority” of Calvin Helin is even more offensive. His views have carried much further than they deserve precisely because they serve the right wing agenda you mention. His writing says to the racists out there, “See, we were right. They are lazy and dependent and corrupt. That's the problem. Not anything we've done”. While there is some truth to Mr. Helin's observations, in some communities, they are far from universal or even the norm and more to the point, they are a distraction from the dialogue that really needs to be going on. But their value as a distraction is exactly why they get the coverage and approbation they do.The history of this country had a phase when only Indigenous peoples were here, which was followed by one when a real partnership existed between Indigenous and European traders and even some settlers. That was followed by a period of segregation imposed by the colonialists, which in turn was followed by a policy of assimilation. That policy of assimilation has not been abandoned yet, regardless of what the Prime Minister claimed in his apology two years ago. The focus on Helin and urbanization and what is wrong with First Nation communities that these urbanites are supposed to fix serves the continuation of the assimilationist agenda. It puts the problem on reserve, with tradition, with the First Nations and allows the colonialists to avoid looking inward, to ignore what has been done and what continues to be done to destroy First Nations languages, cultures, hopes and lands.So, what is the dialogue that really needs to be going on? It is not an inter-generational struggle or a “seismic shift” within First Nations. It is the same dialogue that was called for by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 and the Assembly of First Nations, and so many others over and over again. Reconciliation. How to get there. And that does require respectful dialogue, so you should be applauded for seeking to participate in it. But it also requires better information and a stronger sense of the debate it is replacing than you seem to have acquired to date. The debate very much does involve you. And when the communities, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, see and treat each other as equals, each may be able to offer help to the other in resolving their internal problems. Until then, however, such meddling serves to prevent rather than accelerate the reconciliation that is needed.I hope this helps you see where you need to look.

  2. Keven Kanten

    I wish to add, that the dialog itself needs to be approached completely differently than we are used to since we all live in a singular colonial culture, we assume our ways are applicable to everyone. Part of the problem is that our government does not even go to the community to ASK how these traditional First Nation and other Aboriginal categories wish to work together. Instead they dictate. One thing I've learned in my 15 years working in this community is that that is an act of disrespect to their cultural ways. No consultation about how to communicate and discuss issues. Instead, government uses their own consultants and experts and then dictate “we will meet with you here, at this time and here is the agenda” rather than asking these nations (they are nations, not conquered peoples like most people seem to assume) how they would like to communicate about the issues and what is needed to empower them. Perhaps because in my experience, the Cdn Gov't is much more interested in its parental role that wants the children to live at home forever. The Cdn Gov't policies are still very much an obstacle to First Nation empowerment to be self supporting and contributing to Canada as a whole. The issues of corruption are often situations that never would have happened if our government hadn't created the system they must operate under. First Nations did not make the rules. Yet I don't seem to find any documentation giving the Canadian Government the power to make rules for them. This speaks loads of what the Aboriginal leadership in the early 1800's up to the last Treaty (not counting the modern treaties) were like – trusting. Misguided in that trust. Anyone who actually knows the bulk of the bad policies, laws and programs created and taken away over the last 150 years can totally understand why native people in Canada have little trust of white people and their government. And with the ignorance of Canadians who know very little about the history of our government's relationship with First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, its still common to see an average unsuspecting native person being judged by non-natives based on tv myths and stereotypes and the overplayed statement about TAXES and not paying taxes and getting everything for free. Have doubt, read comments on the CBC online news after any Aboriginal article. Good or bad, its so covertly and openly racist against Aboriginal people I'm amazed any native person has the depth of character to persevere to achieve anything. Despite opportunities, public opinion keeps screaming that they are freeloaders, drunks and violent abusers. How can one feel hope with that hanging over their head? I say scrap the INAC policies and start over letting First Nations dictate how they wish to run their reserves and govern their people in a transparent way. Give their destiny to them and thus motivating them to be active participants in their own future path, no matter where it takes them. That equals hope. There is no hope for a culture if that culture isn't allowed to develop in a free environment, something most Canadians can't understand since they have never had laws restricting their participation in their own cultures where ever they originated. Aboriginal peoples in Canada didn't have any of that freedom until 1951!But then, why would government do any of this when they don't even consider doing that for the general population?

  3. David Eaves

    Hi Dan, Thank you for commenting. Particularly its thoughtfulness in response to a subject that can often be sensitive and feel, for many non-aboriginals, too dangerous to venture into. It is one of the things that helps makes this blog rewarding and, I think work (it is also what I hope distinguishes from the Globe, or lesser extent Macleans, where the the rantings in the comments sections destroy dialogue).So some thoughts/reflections, in the order you listed them:I'm pretty sure that stats I cited are not incorrect, I've included some links so you and others can confirm. The difference may be that you refer to Status-Indians, whereas I'm referring to people who describe themselves as aboriginal. Here again 56% of this population lives in Urban areas with almost 34% (213,945) living in five cities: Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. Again, we can argue about the definition of urban (I agree that 1,000 people is a ridiculous definition) but I'm pretty certain from the stats on INAC's page that 55% of all aboriginals do not live on reserves – but I'm definitely open to being corrected – please do fire me some links.Second, I did not claim that Education as an aspiration was new, only that it was important. (Indeed, for the current generation of First Nations graduating from university that drive had to emerge from someone – likely their parents/communities). The real thrust was how that it was going to manifest itself in a more profound manner. The sheer numbers is what – I suspect – makes the current cohort different. But I'm pretty sure I wasn't claiming this was new – and my intent was very much not to offend.I understand that you are not a fan of Mr. Helin… he definitely has his detractors. Isn't his argument (and the quote in particular) trying to transcend the very argument that you made. Indeed, I'm pretty sure his writing is an effort to say, there are these challenges, we need to engage them and we need to take on the racist who will seek to exploit these. My sense is that we can't allow the racists to censor or – as your correctly point out – define the conversations. On the history piece I completely agree with you around the evolution. I'm also in agreement for the continued need for a real dialogue and, more importantly, reconciliation. Indeed, I think the post-Residential Schools settlement has missed a bigger opportunity for such a conversation, mostly because, I don't think non-aboriginal Canada was prepared to look in the mirror and have that conversation.I do hope that I there will be a conversation, but I'll confess, I'm not sure how many of us (both aboriginal and non-aboriginal) feel like it is safe to have it. I'm here and ready to talk and, more importantly learn and will try to keep finding new places to look, especially those places you feel I need to.In friendship,Dave

  4. Tania Moore

    Hi David,I read your posts on my google reader and this post has had me thinking from the moment I read it. First, thanks for being brave enough to post it!Second, I'm very proud of my great friend Ginger, and her hard work with the UAP Survey. It is an amazing piece of work.I'm still wrapping my head around some points you've made and will comment in full later, but one of the comments here has piqued my interest enough that I felt I should at least respond to that now.The problem with trying to figure out the on-reserve/off-reserve issue is the government's definition of what constitutes “status” in this country.I'm going to have to disagree with Dan on the point of “non-status” not having a reserve to go to. You can grow up on your traditional territories as an Indigenous person that doesn't get recognition from the government as a “status Indian”. I know many people who don't have “status” because they don't make the “blood quotient” but that doesn't deter them from being a part of the communities. For example, the Gitxsan decide who is Gitxsan and who isn't. Not the government. Will be back later once I think about this more.

  5. Dan Wilson

    Sorry it has been awhile since I could write again on this, but I appreciate the quality of commentary that your initial post elicited. As there are so many issues that it would be easy to get side-tracked, I'll try to stick to just two.The first is technical and concerns the statistics. StatsCan includes under the term “Aboriginal” all Indians, Inuit and Metis people (which is how the Constitution defines the term as well), but they also include people like myself who have “Aboriginal Identity” but are not Metis, Inuit or Indians. I say this as “Indian” is also defined in law – the Indian Act – and only those who are granted status by the Minister are “Indians”. Non-status Indians or those with Aboriginal identity are not defined in law anywhere. This does not diminish their personal identity or cultural affiliation, it is a matter of law. Of course, if Canada was respectful to First Nations rights as nations, it would accept the right of First Nations to define their own citizens. Perhaps then, non-status Indians could be accepted back into the communities from which they came, or adopted into new ones, but that isn't the case right now. One can not lump the “Aboriginal Identity” or non-status Indian group in with First Nations in statistics because it misleads and that results in bad policy. Those people who are not members of a First Nation community have no claim to live on reserve, so including their numbers in statistics about who lives where in Canada implies that the significance of Canada's obligations to First Nations is diminishing because the numbers are diminishing. This is even more the case for “Aboriginals” as that term includes the Inuit and Metis peoples who also have no reserves. Right-wingers, like Rod Bruinooge, use this misleading statistic to claim “people are voting with their feet” and the days of the on-reserve community are numbered. There is a very real political and economic agenda at play in the misuse of these statistics, which is why talking about “Aboriginals on reserve” is not only wrong, but objectionable. I hope this helps clarify the problem.The second point is about Mr. Helin. I don't know what he personally feels. I do know that if his message really were aimed at empowering his own people to overcome the malaise he sees, he would be making it within his community, not to the non-Aboriginal community. Again, it is used by groups like the Conservative party caucus to justify their attack on First Nations. The issue is respect for First Nations self-determination, not imposing a neo-liberal economic perspective on peoples who continue to struggle with overcoming the effects of colonialism. If the dialogue were really about how people wish to live instead of how they can fit into the box defined for them, then the views of the Helin's of the world would have a place in the broad mix. Until that playing field is level, however, broad criticism of “them” serves only the racist agenda, regardless of what the person making the criticism may intend. This really boils down to identifying the priority changes that are needed to create the space for important, but secondary changes, and creating virtuous circles of achievement while ending the vicious circle of colonialism.In the end, this is about how to have a conversation. Personally, I think it needs to be informed by facts that show a full understanding of context and attitudes that really serve to support constructive change. I sense that is what you want as well, which is why I write.

  6. David Eaves

    Dan – comments like yours make blogging rewarding. Would be nice to talk about this over beer.I think your first point is deeply interesting. It would be fascinating to see some stats on status indian movements. I'm going to try to hunt some of those down. Many of the people I've engaged with are status indians living in urban settings, but these anecdotal experiences should not serve as the basis for conclusions. I really liked this line: “This really boils down to identifying the priority changes that are needed to create the space for important, but secondary changes, and creating virtuous circles of achievement while ending the vicious circle of colonialism.” Which is what I think Helin's book is arguing for. Also, my sense is that the urban experience – especially given that most higher education takes place in urban centres, will be increasingly important for First Nations (status or non-status) and so understanding this context will be important. Again, it would be interesting to see what the movement on and off reserve is by status FN is.

  7. Dan Wilson

    Hi David – again, sorry for the long delay in replying, life gets in the way. To help direct you to sources for statistics that are actually better than StatsCan's, the best work has been done by Dan Beavon and Eric Guimond of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Particularly interesting is their identification of “churn” in the movement of status Indians off and back onto reserves. Unfortunately, most of their best work is not on INAC's website, but has been presented in public fora such as the House Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Northern Affairs and can be ordered from INAC. Take a look at the research and statistics that INAC does publish for some idea of what is available at… for example. Would be happy to chat about this over a beer sometime, although I get to BC fairly infrequently these days, so if you are ever heading near Sharbot Lake Ontario, I can be reached at

  8. Dan Wilson

    Hi David – again, sorry for the long delay in replying, life gets in the way. To help direct you to sources for statistics that are actually better than StatsCan's, the best work has been done by Dan Beavon and Eric Guimond of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Particularly interesting is their identification of “churn” in the movement of status Indians off and back onto reserves. Unfortunately, most of their best work is not on INAC's website, but has been presented in public fora such as the House Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Northern Affairs and can be ordered from INAC. Take a look at the research and statistics that INAC does publish for some idea of what is available at… for example. Would be happy to chat about this over a beer sometime, although I get to BC fairly infrequently these days, so if you are ever heading near Sharbot Lake Ontario, I can be reached at

  9. Sierranowegejick

    Well that was alot to read when your pulling an all nighter, and im just the average 17 year old highschool student. I have to say your writing is quite well, I had to read it twice to understand it….might have to read it a third time….jk I came across this artical when I googled the question “How does the diminishing language affect the identity of Aboriginal People”.

    I was never aware of the issues that Aboriginal People in Canada faced in our past history and in our current day. Until i took a Canadian history class and a Aboriginal studies class.

    I think what upsets me the most is the fact that you know you cant do much about it as much as you want to, it is very difficult to get your voice heard sometimes to people who have the grande power to make a difference. Yes the government does what he can, but also provides the reserves money to do their self governace. I’m not fimilar with what exactly the reserves do with the money that they recieve. But I do believe in self government but it does have its negative tolls. I have to agree that we as aborignal people dont really voice their opinion because they are afraid of racism, they are afraid to be shut down and really so busy with their own issues as people. Yes the past couple generations of aboriginal people are less educated then my generation. I myself have hope, and I believe that there is enough of us aboriginal youth who have great ideas to make somewhat of a positive change, imagine what one mind can do, but what about colaberating them imagine what that can do. Where I come from I see lots of aboriginal people who are very happy, but i still see lots of aboriginal people who seem so lost and yes my heart goes out to them. You could do so much for urself everything happens for a reason i guess.

    But it makes me happy when people care, let alone non-aboriginal people. I got to powwows and i see different cultures there too and thats the apple of my eye when other cultures experiance my world view. I dont know if this is even related to what your even writing about, but I am glad I wrote this because there is so many other things that I am pondering about aha. ..

  10. Sierranowegejick

    I read everything a third time ! even the comments …you really know your stuff aha I just had to say…aha dont mind my other comment……… doesnt make sense…

  11. Pingback: In the bush and out of the 70′s « Allusions : Extensions

  12. Kat

    The history of First Nations in Canada is what it is.  The effects are bold faced and obvious and that is why it has a sense of intimidation.  This is not necessarily a “bad” thing to discuss but I do know that in a time where discussion needs to be upfront and full of truth, there are still attempts at blocking and marginalizing the voice of the First Nation people.  It is the continued attempt at “telling” a people what and how they can speak about themselves.  If there were conscientious, ethical, moral and TRUTHFUL leaders in all aspects of governing the land, the truth would reveal itself.  Because I see (and am innundated with “stories”- but not fooled) that I cannot agree to how “leadership” continues to blow smoke about the truth, then I cannot come to a clear place to make agreement.  In the world, “Canada” cannot represent itself truthfully until it does this first in homeland.  I think everyone can “talk about” First Nation people, it has always happened.  Not until “leadership,” in all aspects of statemanship, allow the people (and peoples) to speak for themselves, will I believe that there is good intention toward all Canadians, including First Nations.  There is nothing wrong with citizens asking questions. I would have to ask next:  Who do you want the response from?


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