NEWS + EVENTS
Some Thoughts on National Aboriginal Day 2017

June is National Aboriginal History Month in Canada/Turtle Island with today being its high point: National Aboriginal Day, soon to be called National Indigenous Peoples Day. In just over a week, we’ll be observing another important moment in our history: 150 years of this form of Canadian government and its constitution. Some are celebrating Canada 150; others are honouring Canada 150+.The “+” symbol cosingersunters the belief that Canada prior to European contact was empty and in need of “civilization.”

Vancouver is hosting a nine-day Canada 150+ festival as it deepens its commitment as a City of Reconciliation. Elsewhere throughout Canada, people are divided about where we should spend our resources – on celebrating some of the amazing history and wonders of this diverse country, or on dollars and energy directed toward righting the wrongs of the past and building true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

A local context
A few interesting stats for you:

  • As of 2011, 56% of Indigenous peoples live in urban areas in Canada. (2011 Census)
  • Officially, 36,995 urban Indigenous people (i.e. First Nations, Inuit or Métis peoples residing cities) live in Toronto, making the city home to the fourth largest Indigenous community in Canada.
  • Unofficially, most Aboriginal service providers count about 70,000 to 90,000 self-identified Indigenous people in Toronto.
  • According to the Toronto Aboriginal Research Project, there is a particularly dense cluster of Indigenous individuals and families in Regent Park, Moss Park and Cabbagetown – the areas that make up CRC | Regent Park Community Food Centre’s primary service area.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has done amazing work to highlight Aboriginal history, the resulting devastating impact, and a path forward for reconciliation. As we know, Indigenous individuals on reserve and in urban settings still contend with huge hardship. Canada is just beginning to come to terms with this legacy.

Life expectancy
Virtually every health indicator suggests that the physical and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal peoples in Canada is significantly poorer than that of the remainder of the population. This bears great impact on Aboriginal life expectancy.

According to StatsCan, there is a significantly shortened lifespan for Indigenous women and men by four to seven years. The Inuit have the lowest projected life expectancy as of 2017: 64 years for men and 73 years for women. Métis and First Nations populations have similar life expectancies, at 73-74 years for men and 78-80 years for women. By comparison, the life expectancy for the total Canadian population is projected to be 79 years for men and 83 years for women.

Unofficially, for those Aboriginal individuals in downtown Toronto who have more challenges with mental health, addictions, and difficult life circumstances, life expectancy is 37 years old, based on research at Anishnawbe Health Toronto. This stat represents most of the Indigenous people we serve.  In a G8 country. For perspective, Chad, consistently ranked as one of the world’s poorest countries, is the country with the lowest life expectancy on the planet at 49.81 years.

Rev. Evan Smith of Toronto Urban Native Ministry told me that, “at TUNM, we always use the findings that the average lifespan for an Indigenous person is 37 years old if they are accessing downtown services. I know that when you include the people who wouldn’t [need to] access [those services] or the CRC, the [average lifespan] number is much higher but it’s a stat that is useful when talking about our populations… In my own professional experience doing numerous funerals, it’s definitely more accurate sadly. I worry that by using the higher [official] number, it wouldn’t accurately represent the needs of our shared clients. I have yet to do an Indigenous funeral for anyone over the age of 54.”

Incarceration rates
According to StatsCan, one in four prison inmates are Indigenous; yet Indigenous people make up only about 3% of the national population.

When I was in law school decades ago, I was shocked by this statistic. It was my first exposure to the history of residential schools and the damage they wrought. I had never heard of them at any point in all my years of formal education. It was heartbreaking to link these two facts together and the stat holds still.

StatsCan reports that Aboriginal adults are overrepresented in admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services, as they accounted for 25% of admissions in 2014/2015 while representing only about 3% of the Canadian adult population. “The most current figure [25%] we have is quite shocking,” said Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers, the country’s prison ombudsman. We are only too aware locally of the challenges faced by the individuals we serve.

The CRC | RPCFC and Aboriginal initiatives
At the CRC | RPCFC, it’s not our primary mandate to focus on targeted programs for our Indigenous sisters and brothers as there are excellent local organizations who meet that need. However, our community demographics mean that many Aboriginal individuals and families regularly use our services. We also now have five Indigenous staff members who have come on board and we continue to partner with TUNM, which is housed at the CRC. Significant CRC initiatives have evolved organically to respond in a culturally-aware way to their interests and needs.

waterCRC | RPCFC has taken part in several events held in observation of National Aboriginal History Month, including a kickoff workshop on the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, a medicine pouch making session, and a June 16 Niigaani-gichigami Water Walk ceremony, marked with multifaith prayers and a community barbecue. For both our Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, the ceremony was a beginning to healing and a healthier relationship with our local waters. The remainder of the month will include workshops on beading (June 20 and 22 at 40 Oaks) and a special “Indian taco” lunch served in cooperation with Shawn Adler from Kensington Market’s Pow Wow Café (June 29 at 40 Oaks).
In addition, throughout the year, two of our most significant initiatives are Biidaaban and CRC’s Indigenous Book Club.

Biidaaban is the CRC | RPCFC’s Indigenous advisory council. It’s intended to be a cross-cultural education collective where Indigenous peoples – Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee particularly – can learn from each other and, in the interest of reconciliation, share some of that knowledge with non-Indigenous peoples to bridge barriers in understanding and encourage everyone to take care of our shared territory. The importance of Biidaaban to CRC | RPCFC’s Indigenous participants is that it provides another safe space where they can come, discuss issues, learn, and get support. The council plans monthly special events, such as our 7 Grandfathers Awareness Workshop series.

Justine Barone, Community Advocacy Coordinator for CRC | RPCFC, notes, “I’ve also seen the impact (of Biidaaban) on our non-Indigenous participants, who want to learn more to understand, but don’t know where to go to learn and would never walk into a space like Council Fire or the Native Canadian Centre.” We all need to be connected and educated for true reconciliation.

The Indigenous Book Club is a space where CRC | RPCFC really sees the bridging of diverse peoples as we discuss issues facing Indigenous communities. The club is a partnership between Toronto Urban Native Ministry, CRC | RPCFC and the Toronto Public Library – Parliament branch.

Canada 150 or 150+?
What is the answer to the Canada 150 or 150+ conundrum?  Here at CRC | RPCFC, we have no clear answers.  We work in relationships, which are rich and messy and hopefully — wherever possible — based in love and respect.

We are hosting and participating in many 150+ events and opening our hearts and minds to the long journey ahead in walking with our Indigenous sisters and brothers toward reconciliation. We hope to learn together, sharing ways of healing from the many cultural experiences of our community and staff.

We also are participating in and supporting Canada 150 celebrations. Although we have a flawed history, this country is astonishing in its growth in diversity and acceptance, embracing change and inclusion and, hopefully, over the coming decade, redressing the painful legacy of residential schools and creating a vibrant path to true reconciliation for all of us. Healing Colours

As we walk this journey, we hope that all of you might take part.

-Claire Barcik, Executive Director

For more information on CRC | RPCFC’s Indigenous programming, contact angelae@tcrc.ca. For more information on Toronto Urban Native Ministry, contact pastorevansmith@gmail.com.