Indian Cities

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

In 2013, the small outport community of Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland, had to make a very emotional decision.

The local economy had completely dried up. The crab processing plant had closed, and the community was far away from government public services. Looking at its bleak prospects, the small community applied for provincial “resettlement” which would mean if 90 percent of the community voted in favour of moving, every household would stand to receive between $80,000 and $100,000.

Little Bay Islands, however, was not some bad luck example. Many other outport communities had relocated when faced with similar circumstances. The decision was no less painful, but it represented a chance for a better life with much better prospects for residents.

In fact, it had been official policy in Newfoundland to encourage these communities to relocate to larger centres when the economic rationale for the communities cease to exist. The process has not been perfect, of course, but the provincial government estimates it always saves money in relocation over the long term and it places residents in better circumstances for jobs, school, and hospitals, for example.

Despite some criticism of Newfoundland and Labrador’s resettlement program, no one opposes it. But, when we discuss First Nation communities relocating when their circumstances are equally bleak most Canadians oppose the idea. Many First Nations across Canada live in communities that have long lost any economic raison d’etre and generations have continued to live in poverty. Nevertheless, discussing relocation is somehow unconscionable.

In 2006, the debate over First Nation relocation arose when Kashechewan First Nation on the shore of James Bay in Ontario was faced with continual flooding. A former Ontario politician wrote a report that recommended the community be relocated to nearby Timmins. The report was very blunt in discussing the economic, health., and educational opportunities that would be gained by relocating.

There are too many Indigenous “Little Bay Islands”and it is time the federal government got blunt about relocating people for their own good.

The Indigenous Māori people of New Zealand present an interesting case study. Once a very rural people, they have become thoroughly urbanized. Unlike First Nations in Canada, the Māori people had fewer qualms about relocating to the urban centres in search of greater economic opportunity.

Seeking to understand the problems and challenges confronting the Māori, the New Zealand government commissioned a study. The Hunn Report of 1961– named after a civil servant Jack Hunn– was thorough and blunt. It recommended many social reforms, but strongly advocated the Māori move to urban centres.

Criticized at the time for advocating proactive social and economic policies to help the Māori transition. The new policy argued for a “middle ground” rejecting both separation and assimilation. It is called integration.

This stands in contrast to Canada’s White Paper of 1969, which was assimilationist.

The New Zealand Report recommended a policy of encouraging Māori people to move to the cities and integrate. It did not tell them to forget their language and culture. It was much more concerned with the economic well-being. Although the Report said that in time the Māori and the Pākehā (white New Zealanders)  would become one people—New Zealanders.

Over the last few decades, the government has been promoting Māori language and culture. Schools now offer Māori language and immersion programs for all children. Although the Māori continue to experience problems, they are doing much better. Also, most interestingly, they have retained their cultural identity and many Māori cultural and tribal institutions continue to operate in the urban centres. When the Māori migrated to the cities, they created social and cultural institutions that allowed Māori people to continue their community links.

Over the last few decades, for many urban Māori, their identity has shifted from a tribal one to a more pan-tribal, national Māori identity.

Although Canada took a different turn than New Zealand, it is still not too late for the federal government to adopt an official policy of encouraging–and more importantly, incentivizing—Indigenous migration and integration in Canada’s urban centres. It is happening voluntarily anyways. The government can clearly assist, in a much more intensive way, motivated First Nation members to relocate to Canada’s urban centres.

Most importantly, Ottawa should work with First Nation communities and organizations to help create more Indigenous social and cultural institutions in the urban centres to help ease this transition. Ottawa should also help fund language immersion programs too.

Canada is not New Zealand and the Indigenous-state relations of both countries are quite different (Māori speak the same language and represent a much higher percentage of New Zealanders), but official and active help in relocation and integration could provide much more hope and opportunity over the long term for Canada’s forgotten Indigenous peoples.