Addressing issues affecting urban aboriginal communities

More and more Aboriginal people are choosing to live outside of First Nations communities and are migrating to Canada’s cities.

Ian Peach, Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick, says the urban Aboriginal experience is complex

It’s part of the broader trend of urbanization as the country becomes more urban and less rural.

The shift from First Nations communities to urban settings has created new challenges and opportunities for urban Aboriginal peoples, an emerging group that researchers at the University of New Brunswick and others across Canada hope to better understand.

Ian Peach, dean of law at the University of New Brunswick, says the urban aboriginal experience is complex.

“We’re looking at the multiple communities at play, how they’re connected to the people that policy-makers traditionally think of as the ‘most Aboriginal’ people – First Nations peoples who live on reserves – and just come to understand the complexity of the Aboriginal experience of life in urban centres,” says Peach.

The University of New Brunswick received a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in May as the Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network’s (UAKN) Atlantic regional centre. The grant will be shared with researchers throughout Atlantic Canada.

Dr. Verlé Harrop has been appointed Atlantic Regional Director

There are three other centres in Canada. The regional centre will be housed within UNB’s  faculty of education.

The funding will be used for research projects that look at the urban aboriginal experience in Canada, and all four Atlantic Provinces will be able to access these funds.

“People with an interest in doing something that supports an understanding of the urban aboriginal experience can come to UAKN with an idea and with a research plan, and our review committee will be well placed to assess it against the priorities of the UAKN.”

Peach says one area that will be explored is how urban Aboriginal people relate to on-reserve governments.

The economy has driven more First Nations peoples to urban centres in search of work, says Peach.

“There are people who are still highly connected to their home communities and families, but have moved into urban centers to find economic advantages,” he says.

“But there are First Nations people who have been living in urban centers for generations to the point where they don’t feel much of a connection anymore with what was once a home community.”

The Dean of Law

Before Peach became the dean of law at UNB, he has long held an interest in constitutional law and constitutional reform.

Peach has an undergraduate degree in political science from Dalhousie University and two law degrees from Queen’s University.

After law school he worked on the Charlottetown Accord, a package of constitutional reforms that was put to a referendum in 1992 but did not pass.

“The last place, after we stopped doing constitutional reform in this country, where you could think creative and principled thoughts about how to construct better democratic governance from the ground up, was in aboriginal issues, particularly aboriginal self-government,” he says.

Moving to Saskatchewan to work for the Government of Saskatchewan, Peach began working on aboriginal self-government, which led into aboriginal economic and social development issues.

“Eventually I ended up engaged and interested in the whole matrix of issues.”

While in Saskatchewan, Peach attempted to negotiate both self-government and initiatives to address aboriginal economic and educational disadvantages.

“As the indigenous representatives in Saskatchewan described it, ‘If you give us self-government and don’t address the real economic, employment, and education problems, you are just imposing on us self-government of misery’,” says Peach.

With his interest in aboriginal rights, Peach became involved with UAKN and working jointly with Ann Sherman, Dean of the faculty of education, helped connect the region to the national project.

Understanding the urban aboriginal experience

The economic strains on rural society, Peach says, are influencing the increase of Aboriginal people moving to urban areas to look for jobs.

“There are people who are still highly connected to their home communities and families, but have moved into urban centres to find economic advantages,” he says.

Living in Fredericton, N.B., Peach says having a reserve on the outskirts of the city, and one within the city makes Fredericton an interesting place.

“Because the reserves are so much a part of the city life, it’s been a really interesting experience, and it leads to some really interesting research questions about when the level of integration of Aboriginal people as a distinct but valued part of the broader society stops, or why it stops,” he says.

Contributed by Bronté James, Communications and Marketing. This story was made possible through the support of UNB Associated Alumni

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