Aboriginal affairs

Urban / Aboriginal was a Master’s thesis completed in the Urban Design program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design in the spring of 2002. The ambition of the thesis was to understand the complex roots of conflict between modern urbanism and Aboriginal culture. The ultimate goal is to develop methods of inclusion by which Aboriginal culture can participate and contribute to the urban environment alongside countless other cultures.

The inclusion of Aboriginal culture in Canada’s national identity has become commonplace. A Native cleansing ceremony opened the inauguration of our latest Prime Minister, Native costumes and dance have anchored the opening ceremonies of three Canadian Olympic Games, and Native art is regularly presented as gifts to visiting dignitaries and Heads of State. Unfortunately, Native culture has been used largely as a symbolic language instead of a means of social inclusion. This is most evident in urban centres where Aboriginal culture is expressed episodically during special events and rarely as part of a city’s identity. This research aims to deploy aboriginal culture as permanent urban infrastructure.

The context for this research is complex and often contentious. Almost 4% of Canada’s population (1 million people) report having Aboriginal origins. Over 40% of these people live in urban areas and are among the most disadvantaged social groups in the country. By extrapolating recent Statistics Canada figures, within ten years half of Canada’s Aboriginal population will live in urban centres.

The historical roots of urban Aboriginal exclusion date to the earliest days of colonization. Based on British planning principles, an orderly grid was imposed over the land and provided the spatial organization for expansion. To new colonizers the grid was a recognizable and familiar order in an unfamiliar land. For Aboriginals, the lines and corners carved into their landscape were unfamiliar and alienating. These colonial patterns of urban order sought to eliminate indigenous identity. Native communities were positioned outside the limits of the emerging cities in order to maintain colonizers’ sense of sanctuary and ownership.

In order to reinforce the need to physically separate Native and mainstream cultures, Aboriginality was commodified as a way of life that required protection from modernity. The traditional construction of authentic Aboriginality is based on a historical and spiritual nostalgia. Aboriginal people were most often interpreted as personifications of the forces of nature in human form. This authenticity of Aboriginal culture required distance and separation in both time and space. Urban culture often defined itself by contrast to non-urban culture and Aboriginal life was, by historic definition, the most authentic non-urban culture. Indigenous people, with their intimate relationship to natural beauty, have always been conceptually sited far beyond the horizon. The authentic Native person was someone surrounded by untouched natural landscape far from both urban and rural areas. Aboriginal culture was therefore located in a distant time and place. Modernity, obsessed with progress, considered Native culture to have been an interim evolutionary stage. Therefore, in its pursuit to define itself, urban culture maintained Aboriginal culture as “the distant other.” Geographic separation and an imposed authenticity have been historically combined to justify and perpetuate the urban exclusion of Native culture. But recent trends of Native migration into urban centres have collapsed this detachment and have forced a re-evaluation of our concepts of Aboriginality.

By definition, Aboriginal people cannot be considered immigrants, yet ethnic urbanization is directly applicable as a model to hypothesize on Aboriginal urban adaptation. Unlike immigrant groups from countries such as Italy, China and India, Aboriginal peoples are not arriving from other urbanized centres. All these previously urbanized cultures arrived pre-equipped with techniques to appropriate urbanity into their own image. Commercial activity often provides the physical focus around which a community could establish itself. Unfortunately, unlike most ethnic cultures, Native culture until recently had no tradition of commercial activity. Therefore, it must develop economic interests and rely on cultural activities around which to build a community identity. Only social networks can preserve cultural values which would otherwise be threaded by mainstream society. Ethnic institutions, cultural or religious, can only be established and survive in close contact with their congregations. These institutions often act as strong physical landmarks which contribute to the overall urban fabric. An urban location for the Aboriginal community to congregate and express their collective culture or faith is a simple issue of accessibility and equal opportunity.

The establishment of the reserve system effectively isolated indigenous culture to rural communities. During this period of segregation many towns have developed into mature cities, largely according to principles of western urbanism. Aboriginal culture, having been isolated on reserves, has not until recently developed adaptive urban mechanisms. Native culture now must confront highly urbanized environments for which it has relatively little adaptive experience. While individual Aboriginal people and groups can successfully exist in urban centres, Aboriginal culture is often suppressed by western urbanism.

Until recently, the reserve system maintained a separation between Aboriginal and mainstream societies. The growing urban population has largely erased this colonial legacy. Aboriginal self-governance has always been tied directly to land reserves, but new forms of urban self-governance, not linked to individual Native bands or land reserves, are now an important point of discussion.

This nationwide internal migration from rural to urban living contributes to the social and cultural richness of our cities, as have successive waves of international immigration. These new urban Aboriginal communities, no longer structured according to band affiliations, still share a strong cultural identity and should be encouraged to express their culture at an urban scale. This investigation does not support the creation of urban reserves or segregated enclaves. Instead, Aboriginal culture should be employed in the creation of significant urban public space. This public space would contribute to the cultural landscape of the city in the same manner as Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India and many other ethnic enclaves.

In order to empower the Native community to contribute to the creation of new public space, the central goal is not to impose Aboriginal culture on the urban environment but to suggest methods by which the community can facilitate a self-directed pursuit of identity.

The rejection of several limitations imposed on Aboriginal culture by a seemingly benevolent mainstream society has resulted in several statements of intent:

Native culture can relate not only to the natural landscape but to the urban environment.

Given the opportunity, Aboriginal culture can be as adaptive to urban living as any other culture.

An Aboriginal relationship with urban space can be as meaningful as their traditional relationship with the rural landscape.

New urban space can simultaneously contribute to the modern city and carry the cultural identity of its most ancient residents.

Urban design can be deployed as a tool of historic and social reconciliation.

As the Aboriginal community seeks social parity the issue of urban identity is only one aspect of the complex challenges it currently faces. It is noteworthy that the design and planning communities, through their creativity and professionalism, can contribute to solving problems of social and cultural inequity.

Currently, I am developing a nationwide design program to be offered as a senior design studio at Canada’s architectural schools. Its principal focus will be the cre
ation of public urban space which represents Aboriginal culture. Each studio would be rooted in its own community and its own urban issues, and would relate to its own local Native culture. Each local Aboriginal community, through its council representative, would be involved as the hypothetical client. Through the CCUSA (Canadian Collegiate University Schools of Architecture) these studios will be coordinated across all ten schools of architecture, thereby representing the entire country. Upon completion of all ten studios, the student work can be published alongside supporting research from parallel fields of study, to further the goal of establishing a genuine Canadian urbanism.

Michael Awad teaches at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design and serves on several provincial and federal advisory boards. He was selected as co-curator/exhibitor of ‘Next Memory City’–Canada’s entry to the 2002 Venice Architectural Biennale. His architectural and urban design practice is located in Toronto.