Indigeneity: A Cornerstone of Diversity Planning in Canadian Cities

by Ryan Walker

Understanding and realizing the urban aspirations of Canada’s Aboriginal (Indigenous) peoples (i.e., First Nations, Métis and Inuit) is a fundamental part of planning for diversity. Aboriginal peoples constitute a significant proportion of the population in a number of cities—between 9 and 10 percent, respectively, in Saskatoon and Winnipeg, for example. They are also an integral part of the history and the civic community of Canada, more generally. Progressive planners should see Aboriginal communities as partners in building more diverse and just cities.

Urban planning with Aboriginal communities is an exciting and underdeveloped area of the discipline, presenting opportunities to establish new areas of research and practice and new initiatives to increase the depth of civic identity beyond the most common narratives of the settler and new immigrant. This article offers a brief conceptualization of planning with Aboriginal communities and presents five priority areas for further work in planning practice and research. The priority areas were determined through consultation with colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan and Aboriginal community stakeholders and municipal officials in Saskatoon, Vancouver, Edmonton, Prince Albert, Yellowknife, Winnipeg and Toronto. In particular, the managers of city planning, urban design and community development at the City of Saskatoon and several of my academic colleagues in the URRBIN Group (an urban Aboriginal affairs research group at the University of Saskatchewan) played a central role in the project from start to finish. The goal of identifying priority areas is meant to challenge planners to work more earnestly in partnership with Aboriginal peoples and to articulate the aspirations of the Aboriginal community in placemaking initiatives, services and governance relationships.

Transformative Planning and Self-Determination

Two concepts are helpful in interpreting the five priority areas discussed below. The first is “transformative planning,” theorized by John Friedmann and adapted by Marcus Lane and Michael Hibbard for planning with Indigenous communities. Transformative planning is planning that includes a commitment by planners—mostly non-Aboriginal planners who wish to work in better ways with Aboriginal communities—to transform the civic structures that inhibit Aboriginal communities’ abilities to actualize their aspirations according to their own articulation of needs and feelings.

The second concept is selfdetermination, a principle that is fundamental to reworking relations with Aboriginal peoples and ensuring their constructive engagement in civic processes. Aboriginal societies were determining their own affairs prior to (re-)settlement by Europeans and never abrogated their right to continue doing so. Treaty relationships, of course, changed the nature of self-determination to a community process that would thereafter occur alongside the pursuits of European settler societies. Mutual respect, recognition and partnership between descendents of European settlers and those of Aboriginal peoples is essential to modern selfdetermination. As Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras have expressed, the overarching goal for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples living together in the same territory must be to find good ways of “living together differently without drifting apart.”

Within Canada, the right and aspiration to self-determination by Aboriginal communities within the settler state accords them a different place in society than that held by immigrant ethnic minority groups. At the most basic level, immigrant communities ostensibly chose to relocate to a new country with an already established set of institutions and practices. Aboriginal peoples, on the other hand, did not, and they derive a different status by virtue of prior occupancy, treaties and constitutional recognition as peoples bearing distinctive group rights.

Accordingly, the challenge of finding different ways to live together differently without drifting apart exists for all levels of government and all scales of community. This challenge presents opportunities for a new generation of planning practitioners and academics to take a step closer to Leonie Sandercock’s vision of cosmopolis where there is “the possibility of working together on matters of common destiny, the possibility of a togetherness in difference.” In all the western settler states, the majority of Aboriginal peoples live in urban areas. The cultures that give meaning to their lives are dynamic and evolving in the urban sphere, yet no less authentic than in non-urban reserves or discrete rural/remote communities too often perceived by mainstream society as the only places where “authentic” Indigenous cultures exist. This implies the need for flexible ways of implementing self-determination in partnership with non-Aboriginal society.

We know that planning practice and research is not value-neutral and that it privileges Western notions of what constitutes good physical and social planning, including processes for engaging community members. Patsy Healey has noted that in light of this systemic power imbalance, it is not surprising that Aboriginal communities resist incorporation into mainstream planning processes rather than “play along.” There is promise, however, in the contention by Barbara Rahder and Richard Milgrom that “[w]hen marginalized groups begin to see their contributions to the city represented in the city’s form, they may be more willing to participate in planning processes.” It stands to reason then that when planners plan with a full appreciation of Aboriginal community aspirations for self-determination and have a vision of creating cosmopolis through transformative practice in partnership with Aboriginal society we should all reap the rewards of more cohesive and resilient communities that provide a richer sense of civic identity. Work in the following five priority areas should help us to get a step closer to realizing the potential of a diverse city that is inclusive of Aboriginal peoples.

Five Priority Areas for Improving Planning Practice and Undertaking Research

1. Citizen Participation and Engagement

Better processes for engaging with Aboriginal citizens are necessary, from the level of the household to community to city council. The distance between individual citizens and city hall is large. While many cities have devised methods to deal with this, such as community or neighborhood associations, these methods are not effective in engaging Aboriginal community members. My research in different cities has shown that few residents with Aboriginal ancestry participate in neighborhood associations or ad hoc community forums, even in neighborhoods where one-third to one-half of the population have Aboriginal ancestry. There are likely several reasons for this, but one of them is that, on average, Aboriginal households have higher residential mobility both between different neighborhoods in cities and between the city and rural or reserve communities.

A second reason is that many Aboriginal people choose to participate differently, focusing their involvement in Aboriginal organizations, such as the network of Indian and Métis friendship centers. Processes that are placebased, such as engagement at the level of the neighborhood, may be much less successful than those that are people-based, which engage with Aboriginal people through their organizations. That said, some place-based approaches have worked, for example where a specific Aboriginal coordinator or advisory group has been set up to solicit views of Aboriginal residents in the neighborhood (e.g., West Broadway Development Corporation in Winnipeg) in ways that are more meaningful and welcoming than the typical open public forum where the setup and tacit or explicit rules for participation may be uninviting.

2. Governance Interface Between Municipal Government and Aboriginal Peoples

A growing proportion of people in many Canadian cities identify with Aboriginal ancestry, and there are clearly held aspirations for preserving and strengthening urban Aboriginal culture in order to realize some meaningful measure of self-determination. There are at least two different types of working relationships that need to be regularized between city councils and Aboriginal communities. One is with specific Aboriginal reserve and rural communities that have their own governments (e.g., band councils, Métis locals) and have proximity to the city or citizens and/or economic interests in the city. Specific protocols could be established with Aboriginal governments, such as those initiated between the City of Powell River and the Sliammon First Nation in British Columbia (e.g., Protocol Agreement on Culture, Heritage and Economic Development, Protocol Agreement for Communication and Cooperation). Among other things, this can help address issues of common purpose where mobility between the city and rural/reserve communities is an important component of the urban experience. Joint planning for land use or economic, heritage or tourism development are examples of areas of common purpose.

A second type of relationship is with a more multicultural urban Aboriginal population that includes people from different nations and territories that share some common interests in and history with local urban affairs. A municipal advisory body with members representing the various Aboriginal communities and their leaders could coordinate Aboriginal consultation and decision-making on municipal matters and engage in ongoing consultation on municipal issues such as community services, planning and design. Careful consideration needs to be given to how such an advisory body is structured and who constitutes legitimate community leadership. The Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Accord is one example of a principles- and dialoguebased approach to creating a stronger governance interface with Aboriginal communities in the city. In Edmonton, the city council began using relationship-building tools like “discovery interviews,” teas, community meetings, visits to Aboriginal groups, open houses and talking circles. They created a strong foundation based on interpersonal relationships and agreement on a set of four communityidentified guiding principles for subsequent working relationships on municipal affairs between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Edmonton. The principles are relationships, agreements, celebrations and renewal.

3. Aboriginal Culture as a Municipal Asset

Aboriginal peoples in urban areas are often characterized in terms of social problems rather than in terms of the strong communities they comprise—communities with aspirations, traditions and contributions that enhance the collective place identity. Aboriginal culture is a great municipal asset that can provide a rich entry point to meaningful change in Aboriginal affairs. Expanding the collective civic imagination and depth of identity to include Aboriginal culture (historic and contemporary) in planning and urban design, public art and monuments, street and park naming, civic history and consciousness-raising are all ways of strengthening interactions between Aboriginal communities and municipalities through an asset-based approach. The presence of Aboriginal culture and history in municipal heritage, tourism and place promotion may contribute to local economic and social development.

One award-winning example of urban design focused on accentuating Aboriginal culture and identity as a municipal asset occurred in Saskatoon at a hallmark public development downtown near the South Saskatchewan River called River Landing. Here, the City of Saskatoon’s Urban Design Section worked with an Aboriginal Elder Council to create a set of tree grate designs that tell stories of how First Peoples would have lived and used the site prior to re-settlement by Europeans. The tree grates (see photos) contain visual representations of the Elders’ stories and bring new depth to peoples’ understanding of the site and the spirit of the place.

4. Economic and Social Development

Municipalities should work closely with Aboriginal communities to ensure that culturally appropriate policing and community services are delivered. Where the size and institutional capacity of the Aboriginal population merit, services designed and delivered by Aboriginal organizations should be considered, as culturallyspecific programs have been linked to better outcomes for Aboriginal people than mainstream universal programs. Sports, recreation and community arts programs that target Aboriginal youth are some of the most promising areas where municipalities can affect significant and meaningful change in community quality of life. Municipalities can also create new opportunities within communities by engaging the private sector to provide job skills and business development training for Aboriginal peoples.

In my 2008 report entitled Social Housing and the Role of Aboriginal Organizations in Canadian Cities, published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, I outline the extraordinarily poor housing circumstances of Aboriginal peoples in cities, on average, in comparison with the non- Aboriginal population. Yet it is unfair to say that municipalities are responsible for creating culturally appropriate, adequate and affordable housing on their own. It is fundamentally a responsibility of the federal and provincial governments. Municipalities can, however, create Aboriginal housing programs to set an example and seed initiatives that are then supported more fully by senior government policy frameworks. In other words, nothing is stopping municipalities from being leaders in this sector, even if they cannot and should not bear the cost of this type of this type of social redistribution. For example, the City of Winnipeg’s Aboriginal housing program has created an annual allocation of funding for Aboriginal social housing organizations in the city to improve their stock or leverage further funds for new construction or renovation. While the budget line is not large, it creates a space for Aboriginal housing providers to expand and improve their portfolios, with backing from the local government.

5. Urban Reserves, Service Agreements and Regional Relationships

It is becoming increasingly common for Aboriginal groups to acquire urban land and real estate and convert it to an urban reserve under the auspices of the federal government’s Additions to Reserves Policy (ATR) or, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, under the provincial Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreements (TLE). There are over thirty urban reserves in Saskatchewan, the first established in Saskatoon in 1988 on thirty-five acres of land acquired by the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation (see photo). In Winnipeg, a new urban reserve is being established in a prominent location close to downtown that will include a 10-story commercial property and an assembly hall for Manitoba’s First Nations.

Across Canada, urban reserves can provide the opportunity to create a positive presence in the city that can foster cultural, economic and social development for both Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal citizens. For example, land claim settlements in British Columbia may include lands for urban reserves, which can in turn expand the collective sense of what it means to have and appreciate indigeneity in the city. Foregone property tax revenues resulting from the conversion to reserve status are replaced with municipal service agreements. Land use compatibility and adherence to municipal by-laws are also negotiated to the satisfaction of both parties. In Saskatoon, the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation urban reserve has had a positive impact on surrounding property values off reserve, having established a commercial complex for all citizens in the area to use, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.


By addressing these five priority areas through a commitment to transformative planning in partnership with Aboriginal communities, we may be able to achieve the “possibility of a togetherness in difference” that Sandercock has set forth as a planning goal for the twentyfirst century. Once Aboriginal peoples see their contributions to the city represented in the urban landscape, and non-Aboriginal peoples begin to embrace and promote ever greater breadth and depth in the reach of urban indigeneity, we will all enjoy a greater quality of life in our cities.

Ryan Walker (ryan(dot)walker(at)usask(dot)ca) is an assistant professor and chair of the Regional and Urban Planning program in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan.

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