Reaching Fluidity: Being Indigenous and Urban in 2013

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and fellow author Cherie Dimaline at the Canadian Museum of Civilization as part of its Indigenous and Urban series. We talked about her books and the common theme of balancing Indigenous identity and city life found in many of her stories. It’s a challenge for a lot of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people living in cities, especially those coming from distant, remote communities. Simply put, it’s about trying to maintain already-battered traditional ways of life in a rapidly-evolving, foreign environment. “Walking in two worlds” is an oft-echoed cliché. But at the event, an audience member brought up an interesting concept that I think can better define the experience: fluidity. She said the increasing ability of modern Indigenous people to balance both ways of life in the city is testament to our resilience. And I think that’s something we should try to achieve.

It’s a notion that hits home for me more than ever. This year I turned 34, and that means I’ve been an urban Anishinaabe for half of my life now. I left my community when I was 17 to travel to Germany as an exchange student. After that, I moved to Toronto for university. My career since took me to Winnipeg and now Ottawa. It’s a weird full-circle, because my parents were university students here in Ottawa when they found out I was coming along. They decided they wanted to raise a family on my dad’s rez and make sure their kids had a chance to eventually learn about being Anishinaabe (the culture wasn’t a major influence in the community at the time). So they dropped everything and moved home. It was major sacrifice and a brave decision, especially for my non-Indigenous mom.

That was the greatest gift they ever gave me and I’ll always be thankful for that upbringing. I learned a lot about ceremony and a fair bit about language, and those are two crucial elements I carry with me in my everyday city life to keep me grounded. But on days when the urban grind becomes two busy and overwhelming, I often neglect those gifts, and it’s not until I’m back in the community that I feel I can really reconnect with them. Hence, the “walking in two worlds” paradox perseveres.

So staying fluid in order to keep that balance is crucial. Whether it’s practicing the language or even smudging, I’ve found that those small defining reminders have comforted me on the busiest days. And it goes beyond simple posturing or regimen. Urban Indigenous communities are growing across the country, so there are greater supports than ever to keep the cultures alive and to stay proud of them. Here in Ottawa, some of my friends have even started an Ojibway language group that meets on a regular basis.

That’s not to naively suggest that we can solve all our identity issues by going through small motions. Indigenous cultures have been historically brutalized in this country and it’ll take a lot more time and effort to heal them. It’s an ongoing process. And every individual’s situation is unique. It’s not as easy for some of us to connect with the community or even feel comfortable taking part in ceremonies. But Indigenous identity is more prevalent in cities now than it’s ever been, and that’s something we can all be proud of.

I hope to return to my community for good someday, especially when it comes time to raise children of my own. Although it’s been half my lifetime ago since I lived there, I’m still fortunate enough to have a great connection to the land through my family and friends. And when my kids grow up there, they’ll be even prouder of the culture that will continue to reanimate and flourish around them. Hopefully it will be as natural and comfortable as water easing up and caressing a beach.


Smoke Signals

This past weekend my home community of Wasauksing First Nation voted in a new Chief and Council. Members elected a new leader and a very different supporting council. I’m not going to comment on the results of this campaign in order to be fair and respectful (it’s a small rez where everyone knows everyone), but I’d like to point out the relative success of the process, particularly mail-in balloting for off-reserve members. I don’t know what percentage of the votes were mailed in and I’m not sure if those figures will be public, but the fact that members who live in urban and distant settings are continually engaged in the process is an ongoing victory.

I was fortunate to be raised in my community surrounded by family, friends, and an emerging Anishinaabe cultural renaissance. I left the rez to pursue post-secondary education and a career, as did many of my relatives and peers. I haven’t been able to return to live there (yet) because my career path isn’t conducive to that (at the moment). But I go home regularly to visit and I still feel part of it. Wasauksing has made me who I am today and I love it with all my heart. But at the end of the day I am an “Urban Indian” and there’s no denying that.

The fact is, more than half of the people who have membership in the Wasauksing band are Urban Indians. When I last checked, the stats weren’t available, but Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s community profiles used to say that Wasauksing had a total band membership of about 1000, with 400 living on the reserve. That was years ago and the numbers have certainly grown. But prior to 1999, those living off-reserve couldn’t vote in band elections. The Supreme Court of Canada’s Corbiere Ruling changed that, and the band election process continues to evolve with each subsequent election.

Fortunately, I didn’t really know off-reserve voting life prior to Corbiere. I was 20 when that ruling came down, and have been able to vote in every election since. I’ve mailed in ballots from Toronto, Akron Ohio, Winnipeg, and now Ottawa. It’s a right I’m glad I’m entitled to so far from my community, and it makes me feel proud and connected every time I drop that envelope in the mailbox. Many of us who exercise this right still care deeply about our home communities and have close ties to it. We deserve our say and we’re happy to voice it.

Wasauksing’s elections are every two years. Over the past two campaigns I’ve noticed candidates appealing directly to off-reserve voters for support via Facebook and email lists. Some of these modern smoke signals have swayed my decisions in the past on who to vote for. Modern plumes of ambition coming our way from home, hoping to draw an even bigger one back. As Canada’s Aboriginal people continue to carve out their identity across this country, this process will keep modernizing, engaging all band members living afar to strengthen our collective voice and move forward.


“Wow Capital City – the Windy Apple!”

It’s been two months since I moved to Ottawa and I wanted to let the experience of living in Capital City saturate a bit before making a new post illustrating my initial thoughts on life here. Well I’ve always thought if you’ve lived two months anywhere you may as well have lived there a lifetime, so here it goes!

(That post title is a Simpsons reference. I’m not sure anyone here even calls it Capital City)

Cleanliness. Ottawa is by far the cleanest city I’ve ever lived in. Of course it helps that the city and the National Capital Commission spend a lot of cash making it look that way. Even though you see lots of people smoking outside downtown government buildings, you barely see vagrant butts blowing around the sidewalk. It seems there’s always someone there to sweep up the trash, and it also looks like there are multiple infrastructure jobs going on at once to make sure city streets are presentable.

Downtown Ghost Town. But if people inhabit downtown streets only half the time, is it worth keeping them so presentable? On any given weekday between 7AM-6PM there’s a vibrant buzz in Centretown because of the thousands of people who work there. But once quittin’ time rolls around, it’s dead. I see it every day because I live just a couple blocks from the heart of it. It gets really lonely and dark, and it’s hard to believe this is the core of a metro area of more than a million people.

Nightlife. If you end up feeling lonely on a dark downtown street, all it takes is a ten minute walk to lots of great restaurants, bars, and theatres. Bank Street is great. So’s Elgin. And the Market has lots going on pretty much any night of the week. A lot of people who are originally from here tend to apologize to me for the “lack of action” on evenings and weekends here in Ottawa. First off, there’s lots to do. I’ve seen great bands every weekend I’ve been here. And secondly, I’m 31 now dude – a little old to be needing that kind of “action” that regularly!

Arts and History. This is the national hub for museums, and I feel truly fortunate that I live within walking distance of some of the best in the world – namely the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Status Aboriginal people can get into the latter for free – rightfully so, probably because of all the traditional belongings housed there. I haven’t had a chance to branch out to some of the smaller galleries, but they’re on my list.

Pro Sports Teams. I grew up a diehard fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I think that’s all I gotta say. The local guys are growing on me though.

The Nod. I’ve explained what “the nod” is a few times in past posts, but it basically speaks to the Aboriginal presence in an urban setting. When spotting a fellow First Nations person on a city street is rare, you nod at each other to acknowledge your shared background and plight as an “Indian in the City”. When there are lots of others, you don’t necessarily need to. Although it isn’t as strong as in western cities like Winnipeg or Regina, there’s a visible Aboriginal presence on the streets of Ottawa that reflects the strong sense of community here. Sometimes you nod at others, sometimes you don’t have to. There are great resources like the Wabano Centre and the Odawa Centre for everyone to rely on. Although I enjoy seeing all walks of life on city streets, it’s comforting to see a strong Aboriginal community in the Capital.

There are many other things I really enjoy about living here, like my job, having lots of family in the same town, and the proximity to where I grew up. I miss lots about Winnipeg and Toronto, but this is home for now and I’m gonna make the most of it. Thanks to everyone who’s been so accommodating, and if we’ve never met, keep an eye out for me!