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December 01, 2017

Land and Truth/Land and Reconciliation

The planning profession’s growing interest in Indigenous communities parallels the slow awareness in Canada generally of the history of colonization and its aftermath. This is a sobering reality – the ‘truth’ part of Truth and Reconciliation. Here are some snapshots from that reality: 
  • Indigenous peoples have been present on the lands we know as Canada for 15,000 years
  • As a result of the BNA Act of 1867 control and ownership of the lands and resources previously owned by Indigenous peoples was given to the Crown.
  • Today of Canada’s 998.5 million hectare land mass only 3.5 million are considered ‘First Nations Lands’. However, even these largely ‘reserve’ lands are owned by the Crown and governed by provisions of the Indian Act. 

The impacts of this dispossession of Indigenous lands has been, and remains, at the core of the devastation that has been experienced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples. The following statistics begin to tell the story: 
  • The Community Well-Being Index for First Nations Communities reveals the stunning disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across indicators of income, education and housing. The state of housing alone is a national disgrace.
  • Life expectancy for Indigenous people is 9 years less than for non-Indigenous Canadians*.
  • Young Indigenous people are 6 times* more likely to die from suicide than non-Indigenous youth. At the same time roughly 1/3rd of Canada’s 1.5 million Indigenous people are under the age of 14.
  • Ontario has the highest Indigenous population of any province and an on-reserve child poverty rate of 48%
  • More than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are Aboriginal people – an incarceration rate 10 times higher than among non-Aboriginal people and two-thirds of the inmates in Western Canada are Aboriginal people. 
            *(see Arthur Manuel’s The Reconciliation Manifesto)

An on-reserve public school in northern Ontario Land and its disposition is at the core of what we do as Planners and land is it is at the core of a sustainable means for reconciliation. As Planners we should have a profoundly meaningful role to play in tandem with the restructuring of Canada’s governance and legal frameworks in relation to Indigenous Nations. I would urge planners to focus on a long and sometimes difficult period of learning prior to work in this sector. Begin with the Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which traces the impacts of 150,000 Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools and its aftermath of intergenerational trauma, or books like Arthur Manuel’s The Reconciliation Manifesto – Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy which sets out a way forward for Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Canadians to achieve reconciliation:
Please do not tell me you can solve this with a new program or new services administered by Ottawa…Or by giving us hugs or tearing up when you speak of our misery. There is only one program to solve this dependency and despair, and that is to get rid of the deadening weight of the colonialism that causes it. For us to once again have access to our land…”
60% of Indigenous Canadians now live in urban areas and off-reserve Aboriginal people constitute the fastest growing segment of Canadian society. Yet there is little in the make-up of our towns and cities that acknowledges the rich and diverse contributions of our founding peoples.

Example of a contemporary Indigenous gathering place, Mohawk College, Hamilton, Ontario
What does belonging look like if nothing of your culture, history, language or art is visible within the public spaces of your town or city – how can you ever feel welcome there? The cultural apartheid the TRC identifies as so damaging to Indigenous communities has its imprint on the form of our communities. It also has a reciprocally debilitating effect on non-Indigenous Canadians. Deprived of the cultural knowledge, spaces and touchstones of Canada’s founding peoples, the “points of access” to create positive relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities simply don’t exist.

This is an issue that Canada’s planning, urban design and place-making professions must address. How might we transform our cities, towns and communities so that the most inspiring, everyday places are those that embody and celebrate Aboriginal culture and become the places where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people naturally come together?

Example of a contemporary Indigenous gathering place, Thunder Bay, Ontario

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Calvin Brook, RPP

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