City boosters like to boast about Toronto's multiculturalism and often speak with pride about the 1 million-plus Chinese Canadians in the GTA and the fact that we have the second-largest Somalian diaspora in the world.
But there's much less public discussion of the tens of thousands of First Nations people who live here. Sure, there's the city's Aboriginal Affairs Committee co-chaired by Councillor Michael Layton and Frances Sanderson of Nishnawbe Homes (it was saved at the last moment by council after the mayor proposed cutting it), but it receives little staff support or funding and is limited in what it can accomplish.
There's a long way to go before we truly recognize that aboriginal people are not an ethno-cultural group like any other.
A number of First Nations have lived in the Toronto area for thousands of years, although it was the Mississaugas of New Credit who signed the Toronto Purchase agreement with the British in September 1787. Many sites around the city attest to this heritage.
The community's service providers make clear the challenge faced by aboriginal people, who, like other minorities, are trying to succeed while also protecting their cultural identity. And while immigrants must adjust to a new land, First Nations people are struggling in their own country.
The census puts the number of aboriginals in Toronto at fewer than 40,000, though some agencies say the number is closer to 85,000.
Close to 70 per cent of those 40,000 identify as North American Indian, just under a third as Métis and about 1.4 per cent as Inuit. Others cite mixed aboriginal identities.
The federal government has primary responsibility for First Nations services, and the province has health care and education obligations, but Toronto needs to be more involved in tailoring municipal programs to fit native needs.
While the recent federal court ruling that widens the definition of what constitutes aboriginal identity only legally recognizes a reality that already exists, it will likely lead to pressures for more services in the future.
Many in this community come to the city from isolated rural reserves with shared land ownership, an experience markedly different from life in downtown Toronto. But people leaving reserves aren't just transitioning from a non-urban environment to a large, individualistic metropolis; they're also leaving behind the support of federal services that, while often insufficient and paternalistic, are at least geared to specific aboriginal realities, something services here generally are not.
Today, native frontline workers describe disturbing failures of policy by all levels of government, despite the fact that urban First Nations people have an elementary school, a number of social service agencies and organizations like the Native Friendship Centre, which has been around for over 50 years.
The Centre and many other agencies receive government funding, and there are several other First Nations-focused centres scattered across the city, but there is no comprehensive plan involving all three levels of government. Often, agency reps say, native people fall through the cracks.
The city needs a coordinated strategy that respects this community's important standing as a partner in confederation. Some city departments and agencies are sensitive to aboriginal issues, but, for example, neither Toronto Community Housing nor Public Health has a formal detailed plan or First Nation consulting bodies to deal with relevant matters.
One existing model that could be reviewed in any new First Nations plan is the Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit (APU) developed by Toronto Police Services in 1992 that provides a link to the native community.
The police also have an Aboriginal Community Consultative Committee to look at issues of mutual concern. While more still needs to be done, these examples show how large government departments can begin to incorporate the perspectives of the urban aboriginal population.
The city needs to apply a First Nations filter to each of its programs and actively promote the indigenous heritage as part of our common culture. Aboriginal Torontonians - and the rest of us - deserve nothing less, and a lot more.