Decolonization and Urban Indigenous
Planning: Ginger Gosnell-Myers

Ginger Gosnell-Myers' Fellowship focuses on Urban Indigenous Policy and Planning. She explores the lessons learned from her experiences working with cities across the country, what the aspirations for Indigenous city building can be, and some of the foundational tools and steps needed to ensure its success. She also touches upon contemporary Indigenous issues that impact Indigenous peoples in this country. With so much change taking place, and Indigenous peoples and knowledge now at the forefront in many respects Ginger believes it is important to consider a range of issues that reflect on “who we are as Indigenous people, and where we are going”.

Update and Reflections for 2021

For the last 20 years I have been creating research and policy solutions aimed at understanding Indigenous life within cities. I remember early on how alienated urban Indigenous communities were from larger government and First Nations political discussions. There was a sense that urban Indigenous peoples were not worth supporting, and this was demonstrated by the lack of investment in understanding urban Indigenous issues beyond looking at homelessness. Politically, First Nations and urban Indigenous advocacy groups at the national level consistently belittled one another in an attempt to capture the ‘who speaks for and represents Indigenous peoples outside of First Nations reserves’. All levels of government seemed to not mind this in-fighting as it was just one more matter they wouldn’t have to deal with, choosing the convenience of a seemingly unimportant policy gap that could fall between the cracks without much care. As a young woman who had made the city her home, I watched the disorganization of the urban Indigenous political scene and how the ones who suffered were regular Indigenous people and families. Who we were and what we aspired to achieve went unnoticed. When attention was given, it was on deficits alone which embedded harsh stereotypes, and any community building efforts underway were created without much external support.

Flash forward to today, and so much has changed in a short while. From 2008-2011 I led the implementation of the Environics Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, the largest national research of its kind that explored the identities, values, experiences, and aspirations of Indigenous people living in 10 major Canadian cities and pushed back against the misconceptions held to date about the urban Indigenous population. In 2013 I joined the City of Vancouver to undertake hosting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the historic Walk for Reconciliation by Reconciliation Canada. That same year Vancouver proclaimed a “Year of Reconciliation” and engaged Vancouverites and City staff in a year long effort to learn about the history of colonization and the government sanctioned Indian Residential Schools. At the same time, I led a city-wide policy and service review that evolved into a City of Reconciliation framework that ushered in systemic change within all city departments to ensure that the City of Vancouver found new ways to conduct its work in acknowledgement of the unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation homelands that it is situated on. In five years, close to 100 new initiatives and policy changes were implemented that ensured reconciliation was reflected as a core value throughout the City. So much space was created for systemic change – it was breathtaking.

Many lessons have been learned along the way about Indigenous peoples living in cities that requires thoughtful investigation and dialogue. Cities in Canada have reflected in their policies the learnings from the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study and seen the success of the City of Vancouver’s commitment to reconciliation and followed Vancouver’s leadership. It is still early days in understanding the goals of reconciliation at a municipal level, and what this inspires for new aspirations in city building.

What is on my mind, is, if urban cities represent the identity and power of modern civilization, than the erasure of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge from cities is a perfect illustration of contemporary colonization in modern form. In an era of truth and reconciliation, Indigenous urban planners are pushing back in resistance to this contemporary colonization to create the conditions for an Indigenous cultural comeback in every neighbourhood, bike path, and downtown core. Through every new installation of Indigenous public art, incorporation of Indigenous design into a new building, or daylighting Indigenous knowledge on how the lands and waters sustained life for a millennia before settlers bulldozed and renamed it all – Indigenous urban planners are ensuring that the next generation of city dwellers understand that what they reside on are self-determining Indigenous homelands.

In Canada, there has been a growing movement to ensure Indigenous history and culture is reflected throughout major cities. This is a new goal of cities across the country – to acknowledge the truth of these lands having always been the unceded homelands of Indigenous Nations, and moving forward together, co-creating a city and urban identity that benefits all and connects everyone to the land they share through Indigenous knowledge. This is what respectful and meaningful reconciliation can be.

How we get from here to there requires us to not treat reconciliation as a time defined program. It should not have an expiry date. If we are going to move forward in an honest way, we need to act in remembrance, recognition, and respect.