Urban Aboriginal Peoples

Over the past 60 years the population of Aboriginal peoples living in urban areas in Canada has grown substantially. In the early 1950s – in part due to restrictions imposed until 1951 by the Indian Act – less than 7% of the Aboriginal population lived in urban areas (1). By the early 1960s this figure increased to 13%; by 1971 it had increased to just over 30% (2). As of 2011, 56% of the Aboriginal population lives in an urban area (3).

Aboriginal Health and Social Services

In response to the growing urban Aboriginal population throughout the 1950s, Aboriginal Friendship Centres – agencies designed to provide support for people adjusting to life in the city – began to appear in many cities throughout Canada (4). As urban Aboriginal populations grew, so did demand for services. There are now networks of social services for Aboriginal peoples in all major cities in Canada, although such networks differ from city to city in terms of the diversity and number of services (5).

Aboriginal social services include (but are not limited to) “education, training, employment, economic development, child care, health, housing, cultural support and corrections” (6). The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, a survey of Aboriginal peoples living in 11 Canadian cities conducted in 2009, found that people who use Aboriginal social services tend to do so for both the specific resources they offer, and for the sense of community and cultural connectedness these services provide (7).

Urban Aboriginal health services form a part of networks of urban Aboriginal social services within the non-profit sector, but are not consistently funded or implemented at a policy level on the part of federal, provincial or territorial governments (8). As such, urban Aboriginal health services represent efforts on the part of Aboriginal communities in urban areas to fill gaps in existing services, to provide culturally relevant services to Aboriginal populations not living on reserve, and to exert control over health services on the part of Aboriginal communities in urban areas (9).

Aboriginal Rights

Aboriginal peoples have specific rights with relation to the Canadian state, as specified in treaties or other agreements with the federal government. Aboriginal peoples also have inherent rights apart from those recognized through the state (10).

Aboriginal rights are generally believed to include rights to land and access to services such as education, housing, or health care (11). These rights, however, are often restricted to people with Registered Indian status under the Indian Act, who live on a reserve. “Aboriginal and treaty rights,” which apply more broadly to First Nations (with or without Registered Indian status), Métis and Inuit peoples, have been affirmed in the Canadian Constitution Act, 1982; however, apart from specifying that “treaty rights’ includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired,” what these rights consist of remains unspecified (12).

When Aboriginal rights under the Constitution Act are debated in court, discussions most often focus on land and territory, specifically with respect to rights to self-government or natural resource rights (13). These rights, while attached to an Aboriginal identity, are often also tied to the existence of a band located on a reserve. There are a small number of urban reserves in Canada (14), but most reserves are located in rural or remote spaces. As such, Aboriginal rights are more difficult to articulate in urban areas (15).

In a recent study, Senese and Wilson (16) found that Aboriginal peoples who moved to Toronto from a reserve or rural area outside of the city felt that their Aboriginal rights were less respected in the city, in part through decreased access to social services such as education, health care, or transportation. This also suggests that people feel that Aboriginal social services in urban areas are an important aspect of the fulfillment of Aboriginal rights.

Works cited:

  1. Government of Canada, 1985; Kalbach, 1987; Laliberte, R.; Settee, P.; Waldram, J.B.; Innes, R.; Macdougall, B.; McBain, L.; Barron, 2000
  2. Kalbach, 1987
  3. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2014
  4. National Association of Friendship Centres, 2012
  5. The Environics Institute, 2010a
  6. The Environics Institute, 2010b, p. 44
  7. The Environics Institute, 2010a
  8. Hanselmann, 2003; Lavoie, Gervais, Toner, Bergeron, & Unité de santé publique des Autochtones, 2008
  9. Lavoie, 2004
  10. Coulthard, 2008
  11. Blackburn, 2007
  12. Blackburn, 2007; Government of Canada, 1982
  13. Blackburn, 2007; Keay & Metcalf, 2004; Murphy, 2001
  14. Peters, 2007
  15. Andersen & Denis, 2003; Kulchyski, 2011; Senese & Wilson, 2013
  16. Senese & Wilson, 2013

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