Urban-bound aboriginals pose Canada’s biggest integration challenge, not immigrants

Posted on May 9, 2013 in Inclusion Debates

NationalPost.com – FullComment
13/05/08. Jonathan Kay

Two weeks ago, the front page of The New York Times sports section carried a big picture of Bhola Chauhan and Harnarayan Singh, two turbaned Sikhs who anchor a weekly Hockey Night in Canada show in Punjabi.

It’s a fantastic shot. Singh (who is known to spontaneously break into Punjabi hockey-themed poetry of his own creation) appears to be deep in the throes of an animated play-by-play call. Chauhan, on the other hand, is wearing a grimace, gesturing exasperatedly at the action, as if to say, “You call that high-sticking?”

You can see why a Times editor went big with this story: Chauhan and Singh perfectly symbolize Canada as most New Yorkers would conceive it: a diverse, tolerant, hockey-mad land of immigrants.

And for the most part, that stereotype is perfectly accurate.

According to newly released Canadian census data, Canada now is home to approximately 6.8 million foreign-born residents. That figure represents 20.6% of our population — the highest level in any G8 country. (The corresponding U.S. figure is about 13%.) Most newcomers are from Asia; with the Philippines, China and India topping the list. Nine out of 10 immigrants are settling in urban areas of Canada.

There once was a time — not so long ago — when every news story about rising immigrant levels was greeted with much fretting about our increasingly “balkanized,” hyphenated, multiculturalized society. The 9/11 attacks caused an uptick in such sentiment. And even today, there no doubt will be some who anxiously seize on census data showing that Islam has become Canada’s fastest growing religion (though, at a mere 3.2% of the Canadian population, Muslims still are outnumbered more than 20:1 by Christians).

But overall, this sort of anxiety is on the downswing. It has been almost half a century since the Immigration Act was amended to permit the admission of large numbers of non-white newcomers from the developing world. Their children and grandchildren have become fluent English and French speakers. Immigrants from all groups have become active participants in mainstream politics. And the post-9/11 notion that whole legions of “radicalized” Muslim immigrants would create a terrorist fifth column within our society has been proven false.

In fact, when it comes to integration, the biggest challenge Canada now faces arguably has nothing to do with immigration.

Many of the immigrants coming to Canada, however long their voyage, are city-dwellers who already are familiar with retail capitalism, digital technology, the daily crush of strangers, and the frenzied pace of urban life. In cultural terms, Mumbai and Hong Kong arguably are closer to Toronto than Attawapiskat or Yellow Quill.

Which brings me to one of the most striking findings from Wednesday’s census data: the phenomenal growth rate among self-identified aboriginals. In 2001, 976,000 Canadians fell into this category. By 2011, the figure was 1.4-million. About 50% of First Nations with registered status live on reserves, and many of them will be moving to urban areas in coming years, in search of jobs. Is Canada ready to help them integrate into urban culture?

Last week, I spent some time at the Native Women’s Resource Centre, one of several groups that help aboriginals build safe, stable lives for themselves in Toronto. It’s difficult work: Many women arrive on their doorstep with little in the way of education or employment skills. For aboriginals who come from reserves containing just a few hundred people, the mere act of taking the subway or reading a Toronto street map can seem intimidating.

The government should be doing all it can to integrate reserve-resident aboriginals into the Canadian economy. Current policy, which promotes the preservation of native culture on remote landscapes instead of social and economic development, has had its day. But it is unfair to promote new such policies in the absence of viable support services for those aboriginals who do migrate to urban job centres.

“For the women who leave the reserve, it’s often because they want to improve the quality of life for their children,” one worker told me. “For the men, it’s more often for mobility and economic opportunities. But they all suffer a sense of disconnection from their communities, which can be crippling.”

On reserves, band councils assign houses to residents. In the big city, just finding an apartment can be a major ordeal — especially for someone who has never before set eyes on a lease, or any other form of legal document. Discrimination is also an issue. When aboriginal applicants show up to rent an apartment, a landlord’s first question often is: ‘Do you like to party?’”

“Many aboriginal people who come to the big city, they just get off at the bus station, straight from the north, and they have no idea what to do or where to get help,” says Steven Vanloffeld, executive director of the Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council. “So they end up sleeping on the couches of friends, or friends of friends — and they’re exposed to who knows what kind of influences.” For these people, life on the street — and all the deadly, soul-crushing addictions and trades that go with it — is just one argument away.

This is a black hole for Canadian policy-making: Sixty percent of aboriginals live in urban areas, Mr. Vanloffeld notes — yet less than 1% of Ottawa’s Aboriginal Affairs budgets goes to non-reserve populations. There is a network of small groups, NGOs and government offices that do help urban natives. But unlike East Asians and South Asians, aboriginals who live in a big city do not have any large, prosperous clusters they can look to for start-up opportunities: Aboriginal enclaves in cities tend to be poor and geographically disparate.

“Reserves have their problems, but they also have strengths,” says Ken Richard, head of native family and child services in Toronto. “You have an extended family system, collectivity built right into the culture. The city dilutes all that. And the problems take hold — like addictions and unhealed trauma. Living in a trailer near a lake on a reserve, yes that’s poverty — but it isn’t the same thing as a cockroach-infested apartment in a city.”

Like the other aboriginal social workers I’ve spoken to here in Toronto, Mr. Richard would like to see this country dedicate more care and resources to the migrations that are taking place from north to south — not just the overseas immigrants arriving from east and west. When it comes to the challenge of acclimatizing newcomers to Canadian cities, the longest journeys often are those that don’t require a passport.

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