The Urban and the Aboriginal

1 07 2009

I must admit to having a rather limited understanding of the Aboriginal experience in Canada. Certainly I know some of the history, at least how it is told from the perspective of our majority culture. And I know from observation a part of the current urban Aboriginal experience. which appears dysfunctional and troubled. But I would like to know more.

I am currently reading John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, his paean to Canadian identity. His description of the dominant culture’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples does not present Canada as a very fair country at all, but it is instructive, and in fact exhorts us to stop pitying and/or denigrating these people, as this is not helpful behaviour, and rather just serves to reinforce the juvenile, subordinate position we have placed them in over the last few centuries. His description of their predicament invokes a definition of the rest of Canada as “urban” and aloof from nature, versus the Aboriginal idea of humans as an integral and inseparable part of nature.

As for what doesn’t work on some reserves, that has to do with the artificial imposition from outside of an urban philosophy, one in which humans are the chosen species. It is the failure of that urban view that has fuelled the environmental movement. So reserves were first pushed to integrate an inappropriate urban concept. They were then condemned, more or less by the same people, for complying.

More precisely, the southern, urban, human-centred “environmental consciousness” is, in the words of the Canadian Museum of Civilization curator Stephen Augustine, “new to Aboriginal society.” Many of these isolated communities had already been struggling for decades to adjust to the bad situations in which they had had to settle because the settlers had taken their land. Then they had to struggle to make sense of the artificial and inappropriate structure imposed on their communities. Then the residential school system was imposed to destroy their societal and family structures. On top of that, the architecture and planning made available to them or simply imposed by Indian and Northern Affairs involved the worst of ideas from poor 1960s southern suburbs. These were literally dropped into the near North or the Arctic, the boreal forest, the barrens or the tundra. What then followed was a sudden influx into these small isolated settlements of waves of urban junk and urban junk food and urban garbage. And we shouldn’t forget the pretentious imposition by provincial ministries of education of a standard urban approach to schooling in communities that will never have road access, let alone be urban. All of this has been deeply destabilizing. Several generations of residential school graduates were then expected to run their communities in large part according to inappropriate urban criteria, without any of the managerial training linked to these artificially imposed approaches.

With so many layered challenges to a way of life that was accorded no value and allowed no space to operate, physically or socially, by a dominant and urban culture (i.e. highly structured, specialized, technological and centralized), it seems no surprise that Aboriginal cultures have struggled mightily to reassert themselves, or that so many of their members have become lost in the cities to alcohol, drug abuse and the other dark temptations of urban culture. But Saul argues that this urban view of Aboriginals, for a great many Canadians their only view, is an unfair and distorted perception.

People who concentrate on what doesn’t work in Aboriginal communities usually haven’t been in any. True, some are in crisis. But lots work very well. I’ve seen many of these. True, some have problematic leadership. But from what I’ve seen, the rising Aboriginal leadership is as good as and often superior to its equivalent in non-Aboriginal communities. After all, they have had to find their way through challenges and crises most other Canadian leaders have not had to face.

I am an urbanist. I love cities and think they have much to offer. So, it is somewhat surprising for me to come across an indictment of greater Canadian society defined as a conflict between urban and non-urban mindsets. Of course, it is less the physical city and more the bureaucratic, philosophical and societal construct of the city that Saul is putting up in opposition here. But I see the logic of the metaphor, and I understand clearly (how can one not) the indictment of this “urban” and paternalistic approach to dealing with Aboriginals, and all the damage it has caused through its inappropriateness and insensitivity to Aboriginal cultures.

Today being Canada Day, proud Canadian though I am, I thought I would share this alternative perspective on Canadianism. We often, pointing to the history we wrote for ourselves, pat ourselves on the back for having dealt with the Aboriginal peoples better than our neighbours to the south. We negotiated with them rather than fought with them, we say. How good of us. How noble. Except that the way we interpreted those negotiations was not fair and we have, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, marginalized them as members of Canadian society ever since. I think Canada is a wonderful country, perhaps the best, and in many respects a fair country as Saul goes on to describe in his book. But Canada is not a perfect country. On a day like today I think it is important to reflect on our failures as we also celebrate our successes.

(All quotes from pages 81 and 82 of A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul, Viking Press, 2008.)





The Desire for Community

14 05 2009

In 1985 Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, an insightful critique of television culture and its effect on public discourse. Rather than being a predictable blanket slam of television-as-boobtube, it was a nuanced discussion of the pervasive but largely unnoticed changes wrought by a culture based on watching: a lack of depth in discussions about our common future and decay in ties of community and place. Although the internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye in 1985, Postman’s perspective seems to apply almost equally to this new medium, contributing as it does to a weakening of ties to physical place, and the largely contextless way in which most news is presented via television and the internet. Postman’s prescient thoughts on how the internet would change our lives can be heard in this interview from 1995, which gets really interesting around the 2 and a half minute mark:

Two weeks ago I had my second overwhelmingly positive public meeting experience (the first being this one), a meeting at which most people who attended went home happy and pleasantly surprised. The reason for this, I believe, was that the project being discussed takes a very different approach to development than we have come to expect in our cities. The project is a cohousing development, and the proponents of it actually intend to live there.

Cohousing, in brief, is a form of housing in which residents intentionally create their community. Usually cluster or row housing complexes, cohousing developments are designed with lots of shared amenity spaces that encourage and support interaction between neighbors and with surrounding neighborhoods. According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, cohousing provides:

“…personal privacy combined with the benefits of living in a community where people know and interact with their neighbours. It’s about living in a way that’s responsive to a world that has changed dramatically in the last fifty years-a world in which the home life has changed, women are integral in the labour force, resource limitations and environmental concerns are on the rise, and many people feel over extended. Cohousing offers hope in our often dissociated society.” 

The applicant spoke at great length about the philosophy of the future residents and the design of the project as it relates to the fostering of a real internal community, as well as how that might relate to the existing external community. This is in stark contrast to the standard model of development, which seems to value community only insofar as it works as a trite but meaningless advertising slogan. “Join our vibrant community” can be seen on signs advertising neighborhoods still being prepared by the bulldozer. Most of these “communities” are then constructed to maximize privacy and seclusion (read: loneliness?), packaging up what consumers are assumed to want into discrete lots or apartments. In the pursuit of private comfort and independence, the pursuit of real community of place seems largely ignored. 

Most people seem to crave community, even if they don’t know how to achieve it. I’m not convinced that we planners really know how to create it, either. The responsibility, of course, does not fall solely on our shoulders, but that is an excellent reason why we  should be asking more questions and listening carefully to the answers. The new age may demand new urban forms to suit new ways of living. If we can’t grasp that, then are we really planners, or are we just treading old paths?