Volume 9, Number 13 March 15, 2002

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Peters ‘filling in blank spot’ on urban Aboriginal experience

By Shauna Rempel
SPARK writer

Geographers have paid relatively little attention to the unique circumstances of Aboriginal people in cities, says one of Canada’s most accomplished social geographers.

“Geographers have a real blind spot in terms of Aboriginal people in cities,” says Evelyn Peters, who holds a newly created Canada Research Chair in Geography at the University of Saskatchewan and has served as a policy analyst with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. 

Canada Research Chair Evelyn Peters.

Photo by Stuart Kasdorf

In general, Canadian geographers tend to overlook the role ethnicity plays in the spatial structure of Canadian cities, Aboriginal groups “have received less attention than others,” she says. This is despite the fact Aboriginal urbanization has increased dramatically in the last half-century, and is expected to keep climbing. 

“I feel I’m filling in a blank spot,” Peters says. “I’m challenging the maps of identity that associate Aboriginal identity with reserves and isolated locations.”

She notes that many cities are built on Aboriginal land. As well, academics tend to overlook the positive cultural and economic contributions Aboriginal people make to cities and instead focus on links to urban crime and poverty.

Peters’ five-year project will help document the ‘Aboriginal experience’ in cities. She will examine the socio-economic circumstances of urban Aboriginal people and their quest for self-government, research that could assist governments in designing new Aboriginal policies. An important part of this research will be allowing urban Aboriginal people to tell researchers what they see as important.

Recently, Peters was awarded $50,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to develop an urban Aboriginal database. The information from this database should be useful to planners, policy makers, other researchers and students studying urban Aboriginal issues.

Using census data from 1996 and 2001, Peters will compare urban concentrations of Aboriginal people in relation to poor and prosperous neighborhoods in target Prairie cities. She will also gather a history of settlement in those cities in order to identify the patterns and reasons behind Aboriginal settlement. 

Peters will also involve Aboriginal community members in explaining the intentions of Aboriginal people in choosing housing and neighborhoods and their strategies for coping with everyday life. The outcomes from this research will be compared with similar studies under way in the U.S.

There will be training opportunities for at least five to 10 graduate students in the Departments of Geography, Native Studies and other U of S disciplines, with possible future opportunities for students in the Saskatoon Aboriginal community and at other universities.

Aboriginal aspirations for self-government within municipalities is also a research interest. New urbanization models must be developed to include the special status, rights and cultures of First Nations people, she says. “But it has to be done in co-operation with Aboriginal groups in a positive manner,” she adds.

She points out that Aboriginal locality is more complex than simply being a citizen of a municipality or country. She says a recent Supreme Court decision to allow off-reserve voting in band elections has major legal implications because it alters the longstanding policy of giving rights only to Aboriginals living on reserves.

“The decision suggests that if you have rights as a First Nations person, you should have them anywhere,” says Peters.

She plans to publish her findings in academic journals and in a book combining this research with her previous work.  She’s also planning a book of Aboriginal peoples’ experiences of urban life told in their own words, something Peters says is needed to complement interpretations of non-Aboriginal academics.

She’s interested in pursuing the idea of developing a “Geography of the Native People” course in co-operation with the U of S Native Studies Department.

Peters, who joined the U of S last fall from Queen’s University, says the U of S is a good fit for her. “I work particularly on urban Aboriginal people and Saskatchewan is a really rich place with a commitments to creating those relationships between university and community.”

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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