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Indian Country in the City

Indigenous Politics

My mother’s name is Gail Catherine Thomas and my late father’s name was Peter Sinclair Sr., both from the community of Pukatawagan Cree Nation located in northern Manitoba. Like many Native peoples at that time, my mother was raised in the bush. My family comes from a region rich with wildlife, medicines and natural wonders. My mother lived the life of a trapper’s daughter and, like so many during that era, was tragically taken away from her parents to attend Guy Hill Residential School at Clearwater Lake, located just outside The Pas, Manitoba.

During her stay at this residential school, her parents fell away from trapping and instead became trapped themselves in the life of alcoholism. With each year of residential school that passed, the level of dysfunction ratcheted up. Things in the household got so degraded that my mother can recall having to take her younger sisters to the Lynn Lake dump to find food. It was during this era that she decided to head to the city to get a better life – not just for herself, but for her unborn child. Only sixteen years old when she became pregnant with me, my mother moved to Winnipeg. Having nowhere to live, she moved into a home for pregnant adolescent mothers located in the city’s West End. The morning she went into labour, she did not realize it and was told by another girl in the home to go to the hospital “just in case.” Almost fully dialated, she walked to the Miseracordia Hospital and gave birth. I was born an “Urban Indian” on the seventeenth day of July, 1977, a Sunday, at 8:49 a.m.

I share this journey because so many like me, born in the late seventies and early eighties generation, have this same tale about how we became part of a new class of the Indian population known as urban Indians. Urban migration of our people has led to a situation where over half our reserve based population now lives in Canadian cities, according to recently released statistics. This migration phenomenon is directly connected to the harsh socio-economic realities our people face if they choose to stay in one of the more than 630 apartheid-style Indian reserves that were created by the racist Indian Act policy of the 1800s.

Many people do not understand that attached to Canada’s shameful apartheid reservation system is a national economic development policy that disproportionately sites the most harmful forms of development on or near our Indian communities. If you take a map of all Indian communities in Canada, and then overlay a map representing the siting of all of the mega-hydro, oil and gas, mining and forestry developments, pipelines and transmission lines, you will see that most of these industries operate within fifty kilometres of a First Nation or an Inuit or Métis settlement. This has led to a situation of environmental racism and cultural genocide. In many of our communities, unemployment rates reach staggering levels in excess of seventy per cent during winter months. Most of our people face limited opportunities if they stay home, and, as a result, many leave to find opportunities in one of Canada’s many urban centres.

Out of Canada’s 1.8 million Aboriginal peoples, 75 per cent are under the age of thirty, which means that we are in the midst of a profound generational shift of power. By 2016, one out of every four people in Canada’s workforce will be a Native person. This group has more capacity than any other generation before us in terms of colonial analysis and education. Many of our Indigenous prophecies speak about this time we live in, including the prophecy of my own people, which talks of a seventh generation born free of the colonial mind. Children born in the seventh generation are ready to step up and assert their right to community self-determination. This issue of Canadian Dimension explores some of the complexities this seventh generation must deal with in this country called Canada.

This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country (in the city)).

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