Cities Are Indigenous Land, Too


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Indigenous issues

Cities Are Indigenous Land, Too

On answering the question "Where are you from?" as an Anishnaabe born in Toronto.

"Where are you from?" It's a question a lot of us have encountered from time to time over a noisy coffee, awkward lunch, in the workplace, or my favourite place: cultural awareness workshops. I have faced the interrogation and negotiating of my identity from Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks, as I am sure many people have.

What reserve are you from? What's your tribe? How come you don't live on the reserve? Wow, you don't look Native. Ah, you're a city Indian!


As an Indigenous speaker and educator I have travelled throughout North America over the past 20 years, and I've heard this a lot. There seems to be an undertone that you're not culturally qualified as an Indigenous person if you're from the city. For some reason there's this misconception that you are more culturally qualified if you're from the reserve.

Honestly, I truly understand why people would feel that way. I mean, how would it sound if I said I am going to tell you a traditional Indigenous story about how bear met raccoon at Yonge and Dundas? Immediately the story sounds modern just based on the location. When I relocate the story of bear meeting raccoon on the shores of Old Women's Bay (Lake Superior), for some reason it seems more Indigenous. The stories and teachings are from the land.

Graffiti of a Anishinaabe (Ojibway) Thunderbird from the petroglyphs north of Peterborough by Paula "La Bomba" Gonzalez. Photo via the author

I was born and raised in marginalized impoverished Toronto. As an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) boy growing up in the city during the 70s and 80s, I had no clue who the hell I was. All I knew was that I was an Indian. Since then, I have done a lot of Indigenous land-based learning and spent a lot of time attending Anishinaabe (Ojibway) ceremonies and cultural events in and out of the city. I've learned traditional Anishinaabe stories come from Creation. Even though there is a blanket of asphalt over the land, Indigenous stories were here way before Toronto was. So as an Indigenous person how can I connect with the spirit of the land in the big city, is that even possible?


I have been taught by traditional Anishinaabe elders that when we ask where you are from in the language you are essentially asking if you are related, if you are from the same territory, if you are safe to date. Sometimes that part doesn't translate well. Another important part of the interaction that I have come to know as an Anishinaabe is the opportunity for a person to announce their name, cultural titles and/or role the occupy in their community. The gesture is specifically to inform Creation and the spirits who you are.

For the past several decades urban Indigenous identity has existed in cities like Toronto hidden within the constructs of urban planning tucked away in the nooks of concrete, damp basements, dark laneways, and poor neighbourhoods. There are Indigenous health organizations and student associations serving our specific needs. And urban Indigenous organizations like the Friendship Centre Movement have emerged out of cities and now can be found in over 119 locations across Canada.

I remember being seven years old walking up the steps of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (formerly known as The North American Indian Club) and looking up in the sky at this magical totem pole standing proudly in front of the building. Written on the walkway in brass just before the big wooden doors you'll see the word AHNEEN, which means hello. Back then "The Centre" was the hub for us urban Indigenous folk and, to some degree, still is. It was a safe place, and it was awesome. If you wanted to you could visit with traditional elders and ask them anything about the culture. Walking up from the Spadina subway you could hear the sound of the drum emanating from the auditorium vibrating down the sidewalk.


The Canadian government and Indigenous organizations have very different lens and understanding when they refer to urban Indigenous populations. The government's Urban Aboriginal Strategy defines "urban Indigenous" as First Nations, Metis, and Inuit residing in urban areas, but the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website mostly refers to us as "off-reserve." In 2011 the Government of Canada reported that the Aboriginal population reached over 1.4 million and 56 percent of that population lived in urban areas. There has been a seven percent increase on the Indigenous population moving to the urban areas from 1996 to 2011. Cities with the largest populations in 2011 were Winnipeg (78,420), Edmonton (61,765), and Toronto (36,995). The migration to the cities for a better life unfortunately has been met most times with poverty, loss of identity, placelessness, invisibility, discrimination, systemic racism, and homelessness.

Indigenous people moving and being pushed from their home territories into the cities has been a common narrative unknown to many Canadians. Canada has some secrets and hidden history they don't want you to know. In 1857, during the gradual civilization act which was followed up by the Indian Act in 1876, everyone who was identified as being an Indian were put on the Indian registry confined to the reserves and given numbers. These assigned numbers are now reflected on the current Indian status card and the holders who still carry them around. Counting Indians is not new—there are even racist children's songs written about it.


The author's son walks at Crawford Lake Conservation Area. Photo via the author

Up until the 1940s, First Nations people needed an official Indian pass from the Indian agent to leave the reserve if they wanted to go into the city—otherwise they were incarcerated or transported directly back to the reserve. These Indian agents, usually white alpha males (just google images of these guys), served as judge and jury over the community entirely.

On the one hand you are an Indian seen in a patronizing way governed by oppressive policy needing permission for everything. On the other hand, you may have become an Indian enfranchised by racist policy to extinguish all of your treaty rights in various ways. If you went to university or volunteered for the military, you lost your identity. Either way, Indigenous people may feel this loss, overtly and subtly.

That loss and inequality continues today, as 50 percent of First Nations children currently live in poverty. First Nations adults are more likely to die from avoidable causes before 75, there are over 1,500 missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), and now a national inquiry is underway to take testimony from the families of the MMIW this spring 2017. There are over 130 Indigenous communities on boil water advisories across Canada. Places like Kashechewan, where Indigenous people are frequently displaced and evacuated constantly to urban areas due to constant flooding and severely contaminated water, are left wondering if the living conditions will ever improve.


First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada has stated that there are more Indigenous children in care now then there has been at the height of residential schools. Truth and Reconciliation 94 calls to action is at the forefront for many Indigenous people, communities and organizations. The calls to action signify a process, a relationship of inequity, resistance, resilience, and resurgence of Indigenous people.

Growing up in Toronto I noticed settler communities establishing themselves in areas like Greektown, Little Italy, and Chinatown through businesses. I always thought: Where's Native Town? Where are Indigenous people locating themselves in Toronto? Why are we disappearing from the consciousness of Torontonians and Canadians?

After working in the Toronto's Indigenous community I found that the population was spread out all over the Greater Toronto Area mostly according to affordable housing clusters. We therefore never really establishing a significant presence in the city. Which brings forth the notion that a majority of the urban Indigenous population was and is living in poverty.

The Inukshuk on Lakeshore in Toronto. Photo via Flickr user Joseph Morris

Think about Toronto and the Indigenous presence for a moment. Other than the Inukshuk on the Lakeshore, which is actually from the far north, there is practically no visual presence of the ancestors that once occupied the shores of Lake Ontario reflected within Toronto. This is how we end up in a negotiation about our lineage with coworkers. There is majority of Canada that still sees Indigenous people as an Indians—with or without their status cards—and assume that all Indians live on the reserve. But Indigenous people have become much more than the collective nouns and assumptions placed upon them.


So, with that in mind, I have to consciously think of the ancestors and create an Indigenous presence each day. When I leave my house in Mississauga I put sema (prayer tobacco) down outside on my freshly cut lawn or by the single sapling on my property. I smudge with sweetgrass in my vehicle before a speaking engagement in order to get in the zone. I teach my children traditional Anishinaabe songs in the basement of my house. I have DJ Shub, Tribe Called Red, and my favourite pow wow groups downloaded to the system of my minivan. Learning Anishinaabe words from Wab Kinew's language app Neechee. I try to have a little embellishment to signify my Indigeneity; like my favourite T-shirt bringing about awareness for Truth and Reconciliation, a small square piece hide (moose hide campaign) safety pinned to my jacket for Indigenous women, oh, and I can't forget my decorated rearview mirror.

No matter where I am in the world my clan, my spirit name, my spirit colours, my Anishinaabe identity are always with me. Traditionally the Anishinaabe give their children spirit names at birth. My traditional teachers taught me that you couldn't get anymore traditional than having your mishomis (grandfather) and nokomis (grandmother) bestow a spirit name upon you.

Our traditional knowledge systems have been severely damaged by the oppressive methods carried out by the Canadian government through residential schools. Residential schools have directly impacted many generations of Indigenous people on and off reserve. People like myself and so many others have had to visit with elders to receive a spirit name at a local urban Indigenous organization. I received my spirit name at Anishnawbe Health Toronto near Sherbourne and Queen streets when I was 18 from a medicine man visiting from Red Lake Minnesota. As honoured as I was to receive my spirit name from him, I would have loved to receive my name from my mishomis.

We are in an amazing time of accessibility; as Indigenous people we can access our Indigenous ways of knowing through laptops, smartphones, and digital space. I have to be honest: Even though we can view almost anything online, there is nothing like being in person smelling the sweetgrass burning and hearing the comforting vibrations of the heartbeat drum and voice of an elder speaking in the language.

Indigenous people continue to be resilient and resistant to the attempted acts of genocide by the government of Canada. Indigenous ways of knowing are not primarily based on culture, it is so much more than a song and dance; it is a state of mind, a state of spirit. Indigenous people have the inherent right to connect with this land and access their ways of knowing no matter where they are. The spirit and voices of the ancestors, our grandfathers and grandmothers live within this earth, underneath these sidewalks and will continue to stoke the internal fires of resurgence.