Urban Aboriginal Round Tables: Community engagement from an Indigenous perspective

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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)

Progressive Planning and Community Organizing in the 21st Century

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This Thursday, join a seminar at Concordia by Tom Angotti on the need for new approaches to planning and community organizing from a range of histories and perspectives.Organized by Concordia University, this seminar will focus on the need for progressive planning and organizing to go beyond advocacy and equity models. Angotti will trace the historical importance of advocacy and equity approaches, but then talk about environmental and climate justice, gender equality, occupy, black lives matter, anti-capitalism, etc. and how and why planners (and geographers!) are largely silent on these issues.


Date: April 9, 2015, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Place: Room Hive Cafe (Mezzanine), Henry F. Hall Building (1455 De Maisonneuve W.), Sir George William Campus
The seminar will be followed by a wine and cheese.

Photo courtesy of Tom Angotti.

Voices of New Economies – an Interview with Portia Sam

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By Alicia Tallack

Portia Sam is the Program Coordinator for Miscellany, a social enterprise that operates two thriving thrift stores and a variety of women and youth focused programs in Vancouver, BC. For Portia, the idea that a business can viably integrate revenue with community-based social programs just makes sense. In fact, she doesn’t think business is sustainable if done any other way.

Portiaheadshot In your view, what are some key elements of "new economies"?

There are many elements that make up how we run our economies in ways that work for communities. Two of the ways that Miscellany works, is through the idea of ‘conscious capitalism’, and through integrating community connections into our business practices and our daily routines.

  • Conscious capitalism: This doesn’t mean that we don’t want to make money – we do. It means that we want to make, and use, money in a way that is conscious to the needs of our direct community. There are a lot of microscopic examples of how we do this, such as recycling in a responsible way, and taking time to help people find out where they can properly dispose of materials that we can’t take, like mattresses. If you take the time, you can work in a way that your community approves of. We let our interactions evolve naturally, and then we take a closer look at how we want things to continue evolving.
  • Community connections: Conscious capitalism is impossible without recognizing that communities depend on each other, and that people matter. There are specific ways that we are touching our community; through networking with health, policing, and employment groups, for example. They know we are there and open to training people. A big part of what we do is train women for work experience when they get out of prison. As far as I know, there is no government program or stipend for this; it is simply not a priority to them. But we know different. We use our profits to pay for this program because we know that this is important, and we partner with women to give them a chance to break the cycle.

What are some ways that you listen to your community in order to genuinely connect?miscellanyfinds_header1

We do this in several ways, and it largely depends on what is needed. We listen directly, one-on-one, but also have some business-wide practices in place. These work together, so that we can respond to what people need. For example, we have gift certificates that we give to transition houses, where they give it to the women as needed. They usually give it to women as they are transitioning from the house into second stage housing, and they use it to buy things to set up their new home. When they come in, they are equal to anyone else in there. It is ultimately a thrift store, but it has been organized by our volunteers to feel like a boutique. So when a woman comes in with a gift certificate, she doesn’t feel like she is getting leftovers, she is getting quality items that are useful. Our donors recognize that just because a woman is marginalized, that doesn’t mean that she should have the dregs of whatever we can give her. And when we don’t have what she needs, we take the time to connect her with trusted organizations that do.

We also work with PLEA, a community courts service program for youth that have been in the system. We offer basic training for youth that have never had training or a job, that don’t know how to dress for a job, or how to talk to customers. These kids haven’t had anyone watching their backs and lifting them up, telling them that they can do it. They have been in the system, and we work with them to overcome their obstacles. They are usually very ready for this. They are willing to do whatever it takes to change their lives. It is really empowering to work with them and to see this. They show me how amazing humanity can be.

Can this type of connection scale up within cities?miscellanyfinds_web.001

Yes I think it definitely can. It scales up beyond one business by being part of standard policies and business practices. Integrating the expectation that through connecting with other groups around you, we are all stronger. For example, over time we have connected with the community-policing group, and they come to us when they know of someone that needs something that we can provide, like sleeping bags or blankets. They are always telling people that we are great to them – but we’re not; we are just enacting an important part of a social enterprise. Our mission is to take what we are given, and re-invest it in things that matter, in a responsible way. That is an idea that can easily go beyond our thrift store.

To me, a social enterprise is simply a business with a social element. It could involve training, which is our main thing, but it is more than that. You take the profits, and you put it back into social programs that ultimately contribute to a stronger economy overall. I don’t see any reason that all traditional business can’t move toward acting like a social enterprise. You still make a living and feed your own family, but you give back to humanity at the same time. Instead of making money for the sake of it, we can make money to help others, which in turn helps us. Everyone is better off because of it. If even a third of our businesses became social enterprises, we would solve a significant portion of our problems.

What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is truly having the opportunity to give back. Building a sustainable business that promotes social programs and having the ability to develop programs that are suited to what your communities’ needs are.

Related links:

- Miscellany
- Social Enterprise Canada
- Conscious Capitalism 


Social justice entrepreneur Portia Sam is the program coordinator of Miscellany Finds thrift store for social change. With decades of experience in business management and a dedicated passion to conscious contribution for community sustainability, Portia combined her talents to create a thriving resource to meet the diverse needs of a vibrant community. Portia is proud of the foundational programs Miscellany offers.


This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.

The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.

This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.