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Urban Aboriginals and "Promising Practices" Our call to action

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Charlie Coffey
Executive Vice President
Government & Community Affairs
RBC Financial Group
ICE Aboriginal Forum
North York Council Chambers
North York Civic Centre
Toronto, Ontario

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Rick, thank you for the introduction…and for the invitation to participate in the first Intergovernmental Committee for Economic and Labour Force Development Aboriginal Forum this morning. That's quite a mouthful to say so I'll refer to ICE from now on…I also want to take a moment to acknowledge this successful partnership story over the last few years - a partnership where all three levels of government work together to coordinate public sector efforts that support economic and labour force development in Toronto. ICE is a most impressive initiative - one that could or should be modeled in major cities across the country!

I'm here because RBC Financial Group has a significant role to play in helping to build a strong and healthy society with a prosperous future - in helping to make a difference in Toronto and in cities across the country. I'm also here because my own experience with aboriginal peoples has been along a path of learning and understanding. While leading RBC Royal Bank in Winnipeg thirteen years ago, I became aware of the issues facing aboriginal peoples, especially the urban population, and the need as a Canadian and as part of the corporate community - to act. And finally, I'm here to help stimulate thinking and a call to action about a new reality in Toronto - a new reality that embraces urban aboriginals, issues and trends.

From Jane Pitfield, Deborah Richardson, Roger Obonsawin, Senator Olive Tiedema and Tom Morrison, to Peter Frampton, Eunice Grayson, Peter Jones, Anne Fuentes, Susan Purcell, Kenn Ross, Rod Seiling and Eddie Thornton, it's gratifying to see aboriginal leaders, federal, provincial and municipal partners (including Human Resources Development Canada, Industry Canada, Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, Ontario Ministry of Economic Development/Trade, City of Toronto's Economic Development and Social Services Divisions), as well as union/community representatives and members of the private sector here today. You're already leading the call to action!

And with recent headlines like, "Cities are pivotal to innovation", "Our cities are running on empty" and "CEOs agree cities need cash", this year may signal the start of renewed urban policies and practices in Toronto. Cities - and the convergence of human capital - are an important front-burner policy, media and general public issue right now. Whether it's The Toronto Summit in June, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in August, the Canada West Foundation's (CWF) recent Report, "Uncommon Sense: Promising Practices in Urban Aboriginal Policy-Making and Programming", or the upcoming Prime Minister's Caucus Task Force Report on Urban Issues, not to mention the federal government's Throne speech on September 30th, cities are one of the current hot buttons and urban aboriginals are not only part of the equation - they're part of the solution. It may well be that timing is finally on our side!

As Calvin Hanselmann of the CWF says, "the heightened interest in and attention to urban aboriginal issues has not often been matched by policy-making and programming success. The focus has often been on failures and the frustrations of both governments and urban aboriginal peoples…therefore, it's timely to ask, what are the good ideas that work - the promising practices?"

So where does our call to action journey begin? With a couple of letters - with voices that need to be heard…

We start with Jane Pitfield, City Councillor and Chair of the City's Aboriginal Affairs Committee…when I found out Jane was opening our session today, I wanted all of you to know that she put her committee's thoughts on paper months ago. Here's an excerpt of a letter to Jim Flaherty, former Ontario Finance Minister, dated January 24, 2002: "Over fifty percent of the aboriginal population of Canada does not live on reserve but in urban centres. At present there is no strategy in place to respond to the unique needs of these people. I challenge you to take steps to learn more about aboriginal people and to use whatever authority you have to improve their lives and conditions in Toronto and the rest of the province." Talk about a call to action.

Five days later in a letter to Tony Clement, Ontario's Minister of Health, Roger Obonsawin, of the Aboriginal Council of Toronto wrote, in part: "The aboriginal population in the Greater Toronto Area is over 70,000 members strong. As a leader in this vibrant and diverse community, I've heard many concerns about the direction the province is taking on our specific issues. A response to these concerns would indicate to us that you are prepared to treat the aboriginal people of this province as real people in real communities." Talk about another call to action.

We know that over the past thirty years the aboriginal population in Canada has become progressively more urban. "We also know that aboriginal people who find steady employment and social acceptance in the city blend into the increasingly multicultural urban scene, while those who encounter difficulties are highly visible and reinforce the stereotype of urban aboriginal people as poor, marginal, and problem-ridden."

As Brian Maracle, a member of the Mohawk Nation, award winning journalist and author of Crazywater says, "The perceptions of native people that most Canadians have are defined and limited largely by the second-hand images they see in the media and by the first-hand encounters they have on the street. Given these limited and superficial sources of information, it's not surprising that the stereotype of "the drunken Indian" looms so large in warped perceptions. Although this stereotype is not fully shared by all Canadians, it is nevertheless deeply rooted in the Canadian psyche."

So what can we collectively do to change perceptions? And at the same time, what can we collectively do to help urban aboriginals maintain their identity, culture and language, support those living in cities looking to provincial and municipal governments for public services (like everyone else), push the envelope on building social capital and better listen to aboriginal communities, recognizing the importance of urban aboriginal issues and steady progress? Let's talk about ideas and action plans throughout the day and in the weeks/months ahead.

Although poverty, homelessness, alcohol addiction, poor health and low self-esteem problems among urban aboriginals may very well find their roots in the abuses of the residential school experience or in discrimination/intolerance as part of every day living; and although Toronto (the public/private/not-for-profit sectors, communities and citizens) needs to find answers and solutions - chart a course for the future…can we also decide to simultaneously focus on what's working well in cities across the country - what's working well in Toronto and build on these successes - build on "promising practices"? What does this city or any Canadian city for that matter have to lose by placing more emphasis on showcasing aboriginal champions - promising entrepreneurs, professional women, young people - the role models and leaders of tomorrow! Where's the balance?

As Tehaliwaskenhas, Bob Kennedy, publisher and editor of the Turtle Island Native Network says, "There's no shortage of information available about the aboriginal 'experience' in Canada. All anyone has to do is take a look at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), the report of the Manitoba Justice Inquiry, or British Columbia's Liberating Our Children, Liberating Our Nations. RCAP said a lot about 'Aboriginal People Outside of Reserves', including the necessity for the establishment of institutions of urban aboriginal self-governance."

It's clear that urban aboriginals need an active voice in the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives and futures. And this is what the City of Vancouver is doing - raising the voice of urban aboriginals. Young people have spoken and the City has assumed a bigger role in addressing social issues - street youth, homelessness, and emergency shelters. City social planners are discovering that many aboriginal youth have never lived on a reserve. "Vancouver is working to improve the linkages between the municipality and the urban aboriginal community. City staff now attends the Vancouver Aboriginal Council as a way of exchanging information on key community issues such as homelessness and healthcare funding. The City of Vancouver's Social Planning Department and Parks and School Boards also work together on youth service issues."

In Winnipeg, an urban sweat lodge is currently being built - the first of its kind in North America. It will offer traditional aboriginal teachings and sweat ceremonies to the city's homeless. Hopefully this permanent structure will pave the way for "urban aboriginal healing and revitalization" in Winnipeg and other cities as well - it's also an opportunity - a "sacred place for urban aboriginals to get re-acquainted with their native roots."

And in Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) is celebrating the first anniversary of its Chinook Lodge Aboriginal Resource Centre this Monday. The Chinook Lodge is dedicated to serving the learning and training needs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis students at SAIT. Individuals can make use of its resources, study, or connect with fellow students. I look forward to seeing the Centre next week and meeting bright young urban aboriginal students.

In various cities, the three levels of government are working together to find more effective ways to welcome aboriginal peoples into programs/services and obtain sufficient financial resources to support projects. As indicated in a discussion paper about local governments and urban aboriginal issues (Greater Vancouver Regional District), "There's an ongoing need for better coordination and information sharing between federal/provincial governments and cities on aboriginal program/service delivery. As aboriginal communities become self-governing, the need for joint action and planning will continue to be of critical importance, particularly if the trend of increasing urban aboriginal populations continues." Leadership, policy, communication, funding, relationship/partnership building and distribution of services/programs are all key drivers in western Canada and for the city of Toronto.

We must get beyond the stereotypes and the myths…the city of Toronto can step up to the plate with its own agenda/work plans, as well as learn from urban aboriginal promising practices across the country. Many of us found this out first hand when Fiona Blondin of O.I. Employee Leasing Inc. and I co-hosted a celebration of Toronto's urban aboriginal community at the Royal Bank Plaza on March 7th, with the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, James Bartleman, as one of our special guests.

At this event, the power of networking and partnerships set the tone for what government/private sector and community relations is all about - and for strengthening urban aboriginal voices. Speaking of partnerships…as you know, the Government of Canada and the Aboriginal Labour Force Development Circle (ALFDC) teamed up to address homelessness among urban aboriginal people in Toronto. This is a good example of partnerships at work and follow-up on the Mayor's Homelessness Action Task Force recommendations (a task force chaired by Anne Golden).

At RBC Financial Group, we sometimes need to step back and remind ourselves that long-term business relationships with aboriginal peoples and communities - our banking, lending and other financial services - are part of a holistic set of relationships where education, training, employment, partnerships and community leadership work together to form a basis for mutual benefit and ongoing results.

RBC wants to support early learning and childcare initiatives, not to mention help urban aboriginal youth as they prepare to be future leaders in their communities; we're also committed to assisting aboriginal communities in their efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency and to promoting aboriginal economic development and employment opportunities:

  • We introduced our Native Student Awards Program in 1992 - a program that provides five Aboriginal students with up to $4000 for each year of their post-secondary education.
  • Our bank's Aboriginal Stay in School Program offers aboriginal high school students a chance to earn and learn during the summer. We believe that the more young people know about the business world, the more motivated they will be to obtain the education required to succeed. The Toronto area is well represented in this program every year.
  • Since more than half of aboriginal Canadians live in urban centres, we've placed a focused effort in this area. Our bank's partnership with the National Association of Friendship Centres has led to the support of more than 120 centres across Canada, including the one right here in Toronto. David Martin will speak to you more about the Ontario chapter.
  • We also support training initiatives for aboriginal communities and entrepreneurs. And RBC Royal Bank is a founding sponsor of Canadian Executive Services Organization (CESO) Aboriginal Services, including its MBA program, offering economic development assistance in aboriginal communities.

Have we achieved our goals? Not yet. Do we have a distance to go? Absolutely. Are we on the right path? We believe we are. That's why we want to continue working with all of you - and we also want to work together on promising practices for urban aboriginals in Toronto.

At RBC Financial Group, we see urban aboriginal issues as a matter of concern for all Canadians…and aboriginal economic development as having a significant impact on the national economy and the corporate sector. We've learned it's possible for corporate Canada to create wealth with aboriginal peoples and for aboriginal peoples. It's in the national interest to do more. It's in the business interest to do more. It's in all of our interest to help ensure aboriginal Canadians take their rightful place in Canadian society and in the economy. There's a cost to doing nothing and a cost to not doing enough. It's our call to action!


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