Best of Vancouver 2011 communities: Urban Natives seek their place at the table

The Vancouver aboriginal community is diverse and often misunderstood, but a new study is helping to demolish some of the stereotypes.

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      During an interview in the boardroom at the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, aboriginal activists Scott Clark and Grace Tait both laughed as they recalled a recent meeting with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson.

      “We informed him that he was, in our view, the biggest chief in British Columbia because he had the largest number of Indians living here,” Clark told the Georgia Straight.

      It’s true. The 2006 census revealed there were 11,730 aboriginal people living in Vancouver, and just over 40,000 across the region. Clark, a member of the Beecher Bay First Nation near Victoria, emphasized that Vancouver’s Native population is extremely diverse.

      “There are a lot of stereotypes,” he acknowledged, “but at the same time, there are a lot of incredible success stories.”

      He’s just one example. While studying at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Clark led an aboriginal parents’ crusade that put pressure on the Vancouver board of education not to close five East Vancouver schools. When asked for the names of people he admires, Clark cited Tracy Johnson, an aboriginal single mother of five who attended a demonstration outside former premier Gordon Campbell’s constituency office.

      “She was standing up fighting for her kids’ school,” Clark said. “I think there are a lot of stories like that.”

      Tait, a member of the Tsimshian First Nation, noted that aboriginal people have a “rich history” of supporting one another, but this isn’t reflected in statistics or in media coverage of her community. She grew up in an East Vancouver housing project, and marvels at aboriginal people’s resilience and their willingness to help one another.

      “A lot of our people are very humble,” said Tait, an inner-city early-childhood-parent coordinator. “They’re told, ‘This is part of your teachings,’ at a very young age.”

      The recently released Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, which was coordinated by the Environics Institute, has helped shatter some stereotypes of urban Native people. Project director and Vancouver resident Ginger Gosnell-Myers (niece of Nisga’a leader Joseph Gosnell) told the Straight by phone that much of the non-Native population believes almost all aboriginal people live in poverty and lack education. “In the city, though, it’s a different story,” she stated. “There are very dire aspects, but there is tremendous growth at the same time.” She added that urban Natives vote at nearly the same rate as the non-Native population.

      The UAPS involved sending more than 100 interviewers, most of whom were indigenous, to conduct in-person interviews with 2,614 aboriginal people in 11 Canadian cities. This was followed up with a telephone survey of 2,501 nonaboriginal Canadians in the same cities.

      “One of the most optimistic findings from the UAPS is the strong sense of cultural vitality among urban Aboriginal peoples in Canadian cities,” the report noted. “By a wide margin, First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit think Aboriginal culture in their communities has become stronger rather than weaker in the last five years. This is particularly true in Toronto and Vancouver, where residents are both more aware of Aboriginal cultural activities in their city and participate in them more frequently.”

      The research indicated that the pursuit of higher education is the “leading life aspiration” of urban aboriginal people. In addition, the UAPS reported that urban aboriginal people want to become a “significant and visible part of the urban landscape”.

      “The thing that surprised me the most was the sense of pride in being Canadian,” Gosnell-Myers said.

      UBC has nearly 1,000 aboriginal students enrolled this year; another 500 are attending SFU, including Gosnell-Myers, who is studying in the public-policy program. For her major project for a master’s degree, she said that she is going to look at data in the UAPS as a basis for making policy recommendations for the City of Vancouver.

      It’s an area that interests Clark and Tait, the two founding members of the urban-aboriginal group ALIVE, whose name is an acronym for Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement. Clark said that during his meeting with the mayor, he asked if city council would adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Clark also pointed out that the City of Vancouver does not have a comprehensive urban-aboriginal strategy, which means that decisions are made on an ad hoc basis—and not always in the interest of the broader aboriginal community.

      Tait and Clark have not been impressed by the city’s decision to allow Atira Women’s Resource Society to create an 18-unit housing project for teenagers, including many of aboriginal descent, at 120 Jackson Avenue without consulting the neighbourhood. The CEO of Atira, Janice Abbott, is married to B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, whose organization is financing the project. “Whoever yells the loudest or who is the best connected gets their program funded,” Clark alleged.

      He described ALIVE as the only urban-aboriginal organization that promotes what they call “place-based strategies” to provide services to people where they live. “What we’re simply saying is that aboriginal people are at a place now where we want to fully engage all civil society,” Clark explained.

      This means moving away from creating silos that isolate aboriginal people from the mainstream. To achieve that end, Clark and Tait have met with park-board staff to make community centres across the city more welcoming to aboriginal people. Tait noted that 1,000 of the 6,000 members of Ray-Cam are of aboriginal descent.

      “They don’t all come from this neighbourhood,” she said. “But they come because no one is turned away. Wouldn’t it be nice for [aboriginal] people to participate in their own neighbourhoods.”

      They praised the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and library and the Hastings Community Centre for extending themselves to local Native people. But, Clark added, progress in creating a more inclusive society also requires nonaboriginal people to learn more about their Native neighbours. The UAPS revealed that half of urban non-Native Canadians have never heard about Indian residential schools, where aboriginal kids, taken from their homes, were robbed of their culture, and forced to speak English.

      “The truth and reconciliation process is about two groups of people—in this case the colonizer and the colonized—coming together and creating new truths,” Clark said. “But as long as we are separated, we can’t create new truths and a new moral high ground of inclusivity.”

      First Nations media stars

      CBC’s Vancouver-based Duncan McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario, files news stories and documentaries to The National, hosted by Peter Mansbridge. McCue is also a visiting professor of journalism at UBC, where he has introduced a new course, Reporting in Indigenous Communities.

      Vancouver resident Angela Sterritt, who is of Gitxsan and Irish ancestry, has worked for CBC and written for several newspapers and magazines. Before taking time off to have a baby, Sterritt worked on CBC Radio’s ReVision Quest, hosted by Shuswap First Nation member Darrell Dennis, who sometimes adopts a lighthearted approach to educating the public and demolishing stereotypes of aboriginal people.

      Over at CTV, Pieter Romer, a Nisga’a with some Dutch ancestry, is senior producer of First Story, which broadcasts aboriginal current-affairs stories. He also teaches at Capilano University. One of the pioneers on First Story was Candis Callison, who recently became an assistant professor at the UBC journalism school after obtaining her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Callison, a member of the Tahltan Nation, was born and raised in this area. And no list of aboriginal media personalities would be complete without mentioning Bill Lightbown, a Kootenai elder and blunt commentator on Vancouver’s Co-op Radio.

      Three local Aboriginal iconoclasts
      By writing books with such titles as The Economic Dependency Trap and Dances With Dependency, Vancouver author and lawyer Calvin Helin has questioned the degree to which aboriginal people have become dependent on government assistance. He also objects to the power of on-reserve chiefs. “My purpose is to try and help poor people,” Helin told the Straight last year. “What I realized is that you can’t help people in the long run by giving them material things. You can help them in the short term, but in the long run, the only way you can help them is to give them knowledge to help themselves.”

      Another iconoclast is Carol Martin, a victim-services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and an outspoken critic of social workers. At a July 28 panel discussion at the W2 Media Café, Martin said that each time a social worker visits a home, a new file is opened, which results in parents being “labelled” and kids being apprehended. She likened it to dealing with an abusive partner. “No matter what you do, you can’t please them,” Martin claimed. She and many other aboriginal grandmothers are fighting back against the apprehensions. “I stand my ground. I don’t give away my power. We have to really teach our women and our children this.”

      The best-known activist of aboriginal descent is probably Jamie Lee Hamilton, a transgender sex-trade activist, who raised a ruckus throughout the 1990s when the Vancouver Police Department failed to investigate when women went missing in the Downtown Eastside.

      Police progress
      The Vancouver Police Department has made significant efforts to reach out to the aboriginal community in the wake of the 2002 arrest of serial killer Robert William Pickton. The VPD put the symbol of the protector, the Thunderbird, on police cruisers. And this year, the diversity and aboriginal policing section won the Minister of Justice National Youth Justice Policing Award for the Eastside Aboriginal Space for Youth program, which offers young people resources and alternatives to getting involved in gangs.

      Celebrated artists
      There are scores of aboriginal artists in the metropolitan area, and here are some of the most famous: painter Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, concept-driven artist Brian Jungen (he doesn’t want to be typecast as the Nike guy), performance and installation artist Rebecca Belmore, interdisciplinary artist Dana Claxton, sculptor and printmaker Susan Point, and sculptor and painter Robert Davidson.

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      contessa brown

      Sep 22, 2011 at 11:41am

      This is awesome , so awesome I soaked it all up I believe as Aboriginal people we have every right to fight for acceptance in society without prejudice .We do have morals & values that are instilled with cultural traditional ways of living. Living in the urban settings I'm sure every aboriginal had a purpose for making a decision to live outside of there community. Mine was education and some have chosen to live in the urban setting because its where they want to be. I have a vision that our people are going to rise up & become one. We are in that process now, we don't have to justify who we are just do what we have to do to get where it is that we want to go. Higher education, cultural values, fighting for our right, in all aspects of life as Aboriginal we are coming full circle where we want to be!!! Black & white is powerful, words are powerful , everything we do or say gives life, I believe we are rising up to be strong like the eagle that soars in the sky, that stands firm when there is a storm, that's what I see happening in the now & in the future..... for the rising generations.

      Mary Holmes

      Sep 24, 2011 at 8:59am

      If its raining in the DTES, the street will be wet. If the DTES street is wet, doesn't necessarily mean its raining. (It could mean the street washers just came through to clean off the streets).

      Thursday, I was standing in front of the shrine built in honor of Verna the third woman to be thrown from her window in the DTES in recent times. Does that mean I was drinking or doing drugs, or selling my body? No, but according to the logic contained in this article, I could be guilty just by my appearance on the street.

      We have the appearance of conflict of interest between Ms. Abbott and her husband Mr. Ramsay. Does that mean there is a conflict of interest? No.

      If Janice Abbott's husband is observed by Scott Clark bringing home a briefcase of money from government coffers and handing it to his wife, Janice Abbott to build another Atira building to house homeless young Aboriginal women then we could call it stealing and nepotism on the part of our government official and Ms. Abbott. If the Atira society receives money from the provincial housing ministry, then according to government guidelines for any government funded initiative, there would be an arms length process, and certain conflict of interest guidelines followed to ensure that the minister did not give preferential treatment to his wife's project. Minimally, the reporter from the straight would investigate whether these conflict of interests were declared and how the process was set up to alleviate the concern that no undue pressure was applied or favoritism was given.

      Neither the reporter, nor Scott Watson have checked to see how this potential conflict of interest was handled. In all likelihood, the Minister handed off the approval process to his deputies in the Ledge (legislature).

      I wish for all of us to be tough on the process, instead slanderous to the people who do work hard on behalf of the folks who are caught up in addiction in the DTES.

      Scott Clark has insinuated that what Janice is doing is sleeping with her funder and getting special privileges. Yes this is true, but it doesn’t mean she got the money based on her ability to please her husband in the marital bed. In support of investigative journalism, why didn't the reporter for this piece speak with Janice Abbott, Executive Director of Atira Women's center and provide Georgia Straight readers with her side of the story? Has anyone from Alive spoken with the Atira people? No.

      This piece features the voice of three or four folks out of 12,000 urban aboriginal folks and adds a few notable artists to provide it with credibility that these artists might object to if they were asked. Janice Abbott, is I believe First Nations. She likely understands the importance of consultation with the community she serves, and doesn’t suffer from the hubris of thinking that consulting herself alone or a small group of aboriginal friends constitutes a community consult. She is not running a bordello for young aboriginal women as Alive’s petition would insinuate, but working directly with the young women most at risk of being caught up in the drug trade and prostitution for a lifetime.

      I wonder if Janet Abbots only mistake was being too busy serving the folks without a voice and consulting with young aboriginal women who she serves and not more highly educated and thus socially privileged First nations like Mr. Scott, Ms. Tait, Ms. Gosnell and Mr. Helin who have friends in the NPA, provincial Liberals and federal conservatives and the Vancouver Board of Trade and the Fraser Institute who will be opposing Mayor Robertson and his Vision slate along with the social programming in DTES in the upcoming city election. What better lightening rod to fuel the local aboriginal vote and to cause a shift to the right in the next vote.


      Nov 27, 2011 at 1:57am

      I wonder if ms Mary Holmes is a personal friend or employee of Janice Abbott???!! Hmmmmm..... I say yes. Too funny

      Mary Holmes

      Sep 3, 2014 at 9:45am

      For the record, and for purposes of full disclosure: I am neither an employee, nor a close friend of Janice Abbott. I am or was a friend of Janice Abbott's on facebook, but I friends with people of all stripes and from all sides of the political debate. I have never met Janice Abbott in person, but I have visited two or three of her buildings and known people who have worked and or lived in Atira buildings.