Integrate Canada’s forgotten Indigenous into the urban mainstream

We need to follow the example set by New Zealand, which gave the Māori the help they needed, while allowing them to preserve their culture

In 2013, the people of the small outport community of Little Bay Islands, N.L., had to make a very emotional decision.

The local economy had completely dried up. The crab processing plant had closed and the community was far away from government public services. Looking at its bleak prospects, the people of the small community applied for provincial resettlement. If 90 per cent of the community voted in favour of moving, every household would stand to receive between $80,000 and $100,000.

Little Bay Islands, however, was not some isolated bad luck example. Many other outport communities had relocated when faced with similar circumstances. The decision was painful but it represented a chance for a better life with much better prospects for residents.

In fact, official policy in Newfoundland encourages these communities to relocate to larger centres when the economic rationale for the communities cease to exist. The process has not been perfect, of course, but the provincial government estimates it always saves money in relocation over the long term. And it places residents in better circumstances for jobs, schools and hospitals, for example.

Despite some criticism of Newfoundland and Labrador’s resettlement program, no one opposes it. But when we discuss First Nation communities relocating when their circumstances are equally bleak, most Canadians oppose the idea. Many First Nations across Canada live in communities that have long lost any economic raison d’être and generations have continued to live in poverty. Nevertheless, discussing relocation is somehow unconscionable.

In 2006, the debate over First Nation relocation arose when Kashechewan First Nation on the shore of James Bay in northern Ontario was faced with continual flooding. A former Ontario politician wrote a report recommending the community be relocated to nearby Timmins. The report was very blunt in discussing the economic, health and educational opportunities to be gained by relocating.

There are too many Indigenous Little Bay Islands and it’s time the federal government got blunt about relocating people for their own good.

The Māori people of New Zealand represent an interesting case study. Once a very rural people, they have become thoroughly urbanized. Unlike First Nations in Canada, the Māori had fewer qualms about relocating to urban centres in search of greater economic opportunity.

Seeking to understand the problems and challenges confronting the Māori, the New Zealand government commissioned a study. The Hunn Report of 1961 – named after a civil servant Jack Hunn – was thorough and blunt. It recommended many social reforms, but strongly advocated the Māori move to urban centres.

Criticized at the time for advocating proactive social and economic policies to help the Māori transition, the new policy argued for a middle ground, rejecting both separation and assimilation. It’s called integration.

This stands in contrast to Canada’s White Paper of 1969, which advocated for assimilation.

The New Zealand report recommended a policy of encouraging Māori to move to the cities and integrate. It didn’t tell them to forget their language and culture. It was much more concerned with their economic well-being. But the report said that in time, the Māori and the Pākehā (white New Zealanders) would become one people: New Zealanders.

Over the last few decades, the government has been promoting Māori language and culture. Schools now offer Māori language and immersion programs for all children. Although the Māori continue to experience problems, they’re doing much better. Also, most interestingly, they have retained their cultural identity; many Māori cultural and tribal institutions operate in the urban centres. When the Māori migrated to the cities, they created social and cultural institutions that allowed people to continue their community links.

Over the last few decades, the identity of many urban Māori has shifted from a tribal one to a more pan-tribal, national Māori identity.

Although Canada took a different turn than New Zealand, it’s not too late for the federal government to adopt an official policy of encouraging – and, more importantly, providing incentives – for Indigenous migration and integration into Canada’s urban centres.

It’s already happening voluntarily. The government can clearly assist motivated First Nation members to relocate to Canada’s urban centres in a much more intensive way.

Most importantly, the federal government should work with First Nation communities and organizations to help create more Indigenous social and cultural institutions in urban centres to help ease this transition. It should also help fund language immersion programs.

Canada is not New Zealand and the relations between Indigenous peoples and the state are quite different. Māori speak the same language and represent a much higher percentage of New Zealanders.

But official and active help in relocation and integration could provide much more hope and opportunity over the long term for Canada’s forgotten Indigenous peoples.

Joseph Quesnel is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


indigenous urban centres

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