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Urban Aboriginal Peoples

City of Calgary In the 1960s and 1970s, the destruction of traditional Aboriginal culture, which had accelerated over the years through government’s various policies of assimilation, was becoming a serious threat. A "healing movement" took place as Aboriginal peoples began to turn to their communities and to the traditional teachings of their Elders for support. At the same time, this turbulent era saw a large number of Aboriginal Peoples relocating from rural lands and reserves to urban locations. Many placed their trust in the hustle and bustle of the city, hoping their new lifestyle would improve their chances of obtaining an education and secure better employment opportunities.

For many Aboriginal Peoples, the move to the city would be their first time to venture into the outside world from the small prairie communities where they had been raised. Life in the city proved to be very different from life on the land, and brought with it life-changing goals and challenges, from learning to speak English to dealing with culture-shock. Moreover, urban Aboriginal Peoples struggled daily with discrimination or outright racism, battling twice as hard to earn the rights that non-Aboriginal peoples enjoyed on a constant basis. The cumulative effects of this often-unwelcoming and discriminatory environment left some people desperate and hopeless. Lacking the support of their families and communities, many turned to alcohol or drugs, which had already threatened to destroy their cultures in the past. Unfortunately, this era gave rise to many of the misconceptions that exist about urban Aboriginal Peoples today.

Honor Song It is true that, overall, Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples experience higher levels of poverty as compared to the larger Canadian population. The reasons for these discrepancies are myriad and complex. These issues are rooted in social-economic status, education levels, geography, cultural identity, the levels of social inclusion and integration, community structure, and lack of infrastructure for health and wellness. Yet, the misconceptions that prevail in society today are surface-deep and are not supported by statistics. The 2001 Census indicates that 49 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal population resides in urban areas. In Alberta, 72.8 per cent of off-reserve Aboriginal Peoples have either high-school or post-secondary education, and 58 per cent were employed in 2004 (as found by the Aboriginal Labour Force Survey.) 1 The urban Aboriginal Peoples who are in need of healing need the support of their communities, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, not the discrimination or racism that they are too often dealt.

Another issue that many Aboriginal Peoples struggle with is the common notion that they must either embrace assimilation totally or remain tied to traditional life. 2 Such a decision should not be expected of Aboriginal Peoples, just as it should not be expected of any other culture existing in Alberta today. Urban Aboriginal Peoples have chosen to reside in the city. In the same way, they may choose to retain their ties to their traditional languages, rituals, and spiritual beliefs. However, such decisions are ultimately personal and vary from individual to individual.

For those who live in urban locations but still wish to maintain connected to their traditional past, a number of resources are available. A strong network of Native Friendship Centres was established to provide community support to Aboriginal Peoples in often-isolating urban settings. The first centre in Alberta opened its doors in Edmonton, in 1962. 3 Since then, the number of Native Friendship Centres has grown to over 20. They are scattered across towns and cities such as Calgary, Red Deer, Hinton, Lac La Biche, Cold Lake, and Grande Prairie. The centres provide urban Aboriginal Peoples with resources for healing and growth. Most importantly, they provide a place for people to share in their struggles and joys with a supportive group of community members and Elders.


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