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Challenges faced by aboriginal youth in the inner city.


Aboriginal youth in Winnipeg's inner city experience poverty, unemployment, as well as the effects of colonization, racism, and alienation. To meet their families' economic needs, many have been pushed into activities that place them at high risk for contact with the justice system. Typically, these young men are not seen as community builders; the personal, family and community issues they experience while working to build community illustrate the multiple barriers faced in enhancing the physical and social health of neighbourhoods. We interviewed young Aboriginal men who had grown up in the inner city, to understand their past experiences, current realities, and how they saw the future of their neighbourhoods. Together, multiple challenges exist for Aboriginal youth in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods that serve as barriers to community health.

Keywords: inner city neighbourhoods, youth, Aboriginal


La jeunesse autochtone des quartiers centraux de Winnipeg est aux prises avec le chomage et la pauvrete et subit les effets de la colonisation, du racisme et de l'alienation. Afin de repondre aux besoins economiques de leurs families, nombre de jeunes ont ete entraines dans des activites qui les exposent a un risque eleve de se retrouver aux prises avec l'appareil judiciaire. Plus souvent qu'autrement, ces jeunes hommes ne sont pas consideres comme des acteurs participant activement au developpement communautaire. Les problemes personnels, familiaux et communautaires qu'ils eprouvent sont autant de barrieres a franchir vers l'amelioration de la sante physique et sociale du quarrier. Nous avons interviewe plusieurs jeunes hommes autochtones qui ont grandi dans les quartiers centraux dans le but de comprendre leur experience, leur realite et comment ils entrevoient le futur de leur communaute. Plusieurs defis et obstacles au developpement d'une communaute saine existent pour la jeunesse autochtone.

Mots cles: milieu urbain deavorise, developpement communautaire, jeunesse, autochtone


A growing number of Aboriginal youth live in cities. Their families move to urban centers for different reasons but often in search of employment and educational opportunities. The majority experience multiple challenges. However, the strengths of urban Aboriginal youth have received very little attention in the literature, and we could find no published research on their perceptions of a healthy community.

What is a healthy community? There are multiple interpretations and uses of this term. Some models of health focus solely on the absence of illness. Other models focus on the presence of wellness. Communities are based on geography, affiliation, or both. However, both public and grassroots organizations have used very inclusive, and similar, definitions. For example, the Centres for Disease Control (2005) define a healthy community as one "that is continuously creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential" (pg. 1). This differs little from the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition (2005), which defines health, as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being", and goes on to indicate that "social, environmental and economic factors are important determinants of human health and are interrelated; people cannot achieve their fullest potential unless they are able to take control of those things which determine their well-being" (pg. 1). Finally, "all sectors of the community are inter-related and share their knowledge, expertise and perspectives, working together to create a healthy community" (pg. 1).

Many Canadians live in cities. As of the last census, the combined proportion of city dwellers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, has grown to approach 60% (Statistics Canada, 2005a). The downtown core areas in major prairie cities--including Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg--where low income neighbourhoods cluster, experienced a stable or declining population while remaining at the bottom of a widening gap in average neighbourhood incomes (Heisz and McLeod, 2004). In Winnipeg, the Canadian city with the highest proportion (12%) of individuals of Aboriginal identity who are not living on reserves (Norris and Jantzen, 2003), also has the highest degree of residential segregation of Aboriginal peoples of all Canadian cities (Maxim and Keane, 2003). Distasio and colleagues (Distasio, Sylvester, Jaccubucci, Mulligan, and Sargent, 2004) found that the majority (85%) of Aboriginal peoples who moved into Winnipeg, moved into the inner city. Half of the Aboriginal population in Winnipeg is under the age of 25 years (Statistics Canada, 2005b).

Inner-city youth are rarely depicted in the popular media as community assets, yet they are future leaders and best positioned to maintain momentum of long-term renewal efforts underway in urban neighbourhoods. Aboriginal youth in inner cities face multiple issues associated with a history of colonization and racism such as poverty, unemployment, and institutionalization. These challenges serve as barriers to their own well-being and seriously hinder the progress toward enhanced community health. It is crucial to hear the voices of Aboriginal youth in order to understand their challenges and opportunities for social change in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods.

The paper will begin with a brief review of the challenges faced by inner-city youth before describing the qualities and uses of participatory research. The review of literature is followed by the methodology and context of the study, before turning to the results and implications for inner-city communities.

Literature Review

As noted in the Senate Report on Urban Aboriginal Youth (Chalifoux and Johnson, 2003), their lives "are profoundly influenced by both historical injustices and current inequities. Issues facing youth are rooted in a history of colonization, dislocation from their traditional territories, communities and cultural traditions, and the inter-generational impacts of the residential school system" (pg. 2). It is important to recognize the past as well as present.

At the time of contact, cultural differences between the Europeans and the first inhabitants of Canada were significant, but not as great as they came to become. Dickason (1992) notes that although both Indigenous and Western societies varied substantially in their own beliefs and practices, there were general differences between the two worldviews. For example, in Indigenous societies humour and hospitality were highly valued (Caley, 1983). Beliefs in the unity of all living things, harmony, and reciprocity were of central importance (Miller, 1982). In contrast, the European settlers came from societies where capitalism, accumulation of wealth, and individual rights were emphasized (Grant, 1984).

Differences are also apparent in perspectives on the history of Europeans and Canada's first peoples. While Eurocentric accounts describe the relationships as a series of attempts to "civilize" inhabitants (Higham, 2000), Dockstator (1993), an Oneida scholar, described the time following contact through a series of stages including: cooperation, displacement and assimilation, and finally, negotiation and renewal. Initially, social, political, and cultural differences were maintained, but as tolerance of the distinctiveness of Aboriginal societies waned among the colonists, a variety of methods were used to promote assimilation. These methods were described in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and included relocations, residential schools, and making cultural practices illegal (Indian and Northern Affairs, 1996):
 Regardless of the approach to colonialism practiced, however,
 the impact on indigenous populations was profound. Perhaps
 the most appropriate term to describe that impact is
 'displacement'. Aboriginal peoples were displaced physically--they
 were denied access to their traditional territories and in
 many cases actually forced to move to new locations selected
 for them by colonial authorities. They were also displaced socially
 and culturally, subject to intensive missionary activity and the
 establishment of schools--which undermined their ability to
 pass on traditional values to their children, imposed male-oriented
 Victorian values, and attacked traditional activities such as
 significant dances and other ceremonies ... they were also
 displaced politically, forced by colonial laws to abandon or at
 least disguise traditional governing structures and processes in
 favor of colonial-style municipal institutions (Chapter 4, pg. 6.).

These attempts to assimilate Aboriginal peoples were not successful. However, their effects continue to challenge urban youth. One important area is relationship to government.

Aboriginal people are recognized in the Canadian constitution (Government of Canada, 1982) to include the North American Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs maintains a list of Registered Indians (Indian and Northern Affairs, 2005). People who were entitled to registration may have lost it for a variety of reasons. Bill C-31 allowed some to have it restored. Membership in a band that signed a treaty gives its members treaty status. However, not everyone who registered or had band membership has treaty status (Indian and Northern Affairs, 2005).

Metis peoples are a distinct Aboriginal Nation of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal decent. Inuit peoples are Aboriginal peoples who generally resided in the north, including the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Labrador, in communities north of the tree line. Each group has a different relationship with government. Metis and Inuit people are not entitled to registration. Only people who are registered North American Indians are entitled to provisions under the Indian Act, and those with treaty status are entitled to whatever terms of agreement were made between government and their bands.

Urban Aboriginal Youth

To find a better life for themselves and their families, many Aboriginal people move to the city. The non-reserve Aboriginal population has grown, and as of 2001 made up about 70% of the total Aboriginal identity population in Canada; 68% of Aboriginal peoples in Canada were living in urban areas (O'Donnell and Tait, 2003). However, it is unclear who is constitutionally responsible for urban Aboriginal issues: federal, provincial or territorial, civic, or Aboriginal governments. Indeed, "Aboriginal people who reside off reserve and in urban areas, irrespective of status, can be said to be the poor man of the Canadian constitution" (Chalifoux and Johnson, 2003, pg. 16).

The situations of urban Aboriginal youth are complex. They may or may not be living with family. They may have experience with, or interest in Traditional or Western values and practices, or both. For some youth, the city has been their only home. They may be second- or third-generation urban residents. Others may be in the city only temporarily for educational, employment, health, or judicial reasons. Some may have made the move to the city for the first, second or more, times. Others may be re-entering an urban setting after a period of institutionalization. Their age also influences available choices. For example, at age 13, employment opportunities are very different than they are at 21 years of age. But youth at both ages may have similar life experiences. At 18, one is legally an adult, and before that a child. The term "youth" overlaps both age categories, and has been defined in a variety of ways between the ages of 10 and 29 years.

Residential mobility is high. Youth who move to cities, move frequently both within and between urban settings as well as rural and reserve communities. High rates of residential change suggest that experience with consistency is, for many, modest. Urban Aboriginal youth who move may move between family members, friends, motels, foster and group homes, institutions, shelters, abandoned buildings and the street (Lerner, Brown, and Kier, 2005). Norris and Clatworthy (2003) describe this as a "chum" effect, which has been strongly associated with the lack of adequate and affordable urban housing (Gareau, 2002) and social isolation.

While there is a great deal of diversity among urban Aboriginal youth, data show that poverty levels and health problems are higher, education levels, employment rates and salaries are lower than the non-Aboriginal urban population (Hanselmann, 2001). The promise of opportunities in the city often can be overshadowed by harsh realities, and good intentions outweighed by challenges. High rates of institutionalization in corrections facilities (Aboriginal Initiatives Branch, 1999) and overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in child protection caseloads (Trocme and Blackstock, 2004) suggest that more work is needed to recognize the strengths, capacities, and contributions that Aboriginal youth make to healthy communities.

Participatory Research

We could find very little information from the perspectives of Aboriginal youth themselves on the issues they faced living in inner-city neighbourhoods or their visions of healthy urban communities. Multiple research reports were located (e.g. Carter and Polevychok, 2004), all documenting various social challenges such as housing, poverty, health, and crime, but none were based on residents' voices. As well, we were sensitive to the history of academic-community relations, cross-cultural relations, and the monopoly that, until recently, White middle class researchers have enjoyed over research agendas in Aboriginal communities. Indeed, very few inner city Aboriginal residents have had positive experiences with "research". It has often meant being asked a few unintelligible or irrelevant questions by someone who had never been to the community before and was not going to return. Typically, the results have had no connection to, or use by the local community.

Participatory research (Gayfer, 1981) seemed to hold promise as a framework to guide our work. A review of the literature revealed many hits on the topic. It has been developed and used by researchers who were dissatisfied with dominant paradigms that maintained the status quo of "researcher as expert" and "subject as recipient", and instead employed anti-oppressive methods that embraced subjectivity and change (Tandon, 1981). Canadian use of participatory research approaches are evident in a range of topics including women's issues (Rose, 2001), people with disabilities (Barnsley and Ellis, 1992), as well as issues experienced by Aboriginal families and communities (Boston et al., 1997).

Bennett (2004), Director of Research for the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, describes some common values for participatory research based on the work of Hall (1975). The problem originates in the community itself and the problem is defined by the community. The goals of the research are transformative and beneficiaries are the community members. Members of the community are involved in the research through all phases. The research involves a range of people from oppressed communities. The process can create greater awareness of resources among those involved. The results are a more accurate and authentic analysis of social reality. Finally, the researchers are committed learners and participants in the process.


Understanding the "problems" of groups facing multiple barriers has long been of interest to researchers. However, these groups have historically had few connections to the university community through which to influence research agendas (Greenwood and Levin, 2000). We used the principles of community-based participatory (CBPR) research to guide this study. CBPR is defined as "a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves, for example, community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process. The partners contribute unique strengths and shared responsibilities to enhance understanding of a given phenomenon and the social and cultural dynamics of the community, and integrate the knowledge gained with action to improve the health and well-being of community members" (Israel, Schulz, Parker, and Becket 1998, p. 175).

Specifically, we followed a variation of a model called the mutual engagement model (Petras and Porpora, 1993). In this interactive model the researcher is directly involved in community activities and the community is directly involved in the research process, including what is studied, how it is studied, and for what purpose it is studied. The researcher teams up with organized community groups to investigate issues of concern. Academic and community partners contribute time, effort, particular knowledge and skills to the research, and through an inclusive and dynamic process, local credibility of the results is promoted. The involvement of community members in setting the research agenda and carrying out the research ensures that the results can be used to lobby for social change (Petras and Porpora, 1993).

We partnered with the North End Housing Project (NEHP), a not-for-profit community agency mandated to revitalize the neighbourhoods of Winnipeg's North End by renovating and building houses. NEHP operates the Aboriginal Youth Housing Renovation Project (AYR), which trains Aboriginal youth and young adults in housing renovation and construction.

Neighbourhood Context

The study was conducted in three neighbourhoods in Winnipeg's Point Douglas South cluster that were served by our partner agency, North End Housing Project. The neighbourhoods include William Whyte (see Figure 1), Lord Selkirk Park (see Figure 2), and North Point Douglas (see Figure 3). A brief demographic overview of Point Douglas South follows, and selected statistics are presented in Table 1.


In Point Douglas South, poverty is a primary problem. According to 2001 Census data, the incidence of low-income households was 58.4% compared to 20.3% for Winnipeg as a whole. The median household income was $18,249, which was approximately $25,000 less than the Winnipeg median. Residents relied on government transfer payments as a significant proportion of their total income (34.9%) (City of Winnipeg, 2001).

On average, North End residents had lower levels of educational attainment. Of those aged 20 and over, 23.2% residing in Point Douglas South had less than grade nine compared to 7.8% for Winnipeg. Conversely, only 4.7% residents held a university degree compared to 18.3% of Winnipeg residents. There were also significantly higher unemployment rates in Point Douglas South (16.8% compared to 5.7% for Winnipeg). Neighbourhood youth aged 15 to 24 years experienced even higher rates of unemployment (21.2%). Residents who are employed still earn approximately $10,000 less per year than the Winnipeg average (City of Winnipeg, 2001).

An examination of population characteristics revealed that it is a youthful community with 38.4% of residents under the age of 25. Compared to the Winnipeg average, Point Douglas South residents are less likely to be married and more likely to be single, separated, divorced, or widowed. These findings may partially explain the high incidence of female-headed single parent households (30.5%). Point Douglas South had a significantly larger Aboriginal population with 37.6% reporting Aboriginal origins compared to 9.6% for Winnipeg as a whole (City of Winnipeg, 2001).

Housing is another important problem in the area since almost half of the housing stock was built before 1946. As a result, 16.3% of homes are in need of major and 32.2% minor repairs. Two thirds of all residents in Point Douglas South were renters, which was a significantly higher rate than the Winnipeg average (36.4%). Core housing need in which residents spend 30% or more of their income on housing was experienced by 47.8% of renters and 17.6% of homeowners in Point Douglas South (City of Winnipeg, 2001).

Aboriginal Youth Housing Renovation Project

The AYR program provides trainees with transferable work experience, cultural support, employment income, and an opportunity to give back to their community by improving the housing stock in neighbourhoods where they grew up. The youth are paid to turn uninhabitable houses into homes for people who could not otherwise afford to own one. They participate in a variety of activities including on-site education and supervised experience related to all aspects of housing rehabilitation, including "gutting" an uninhabitable building, to the finishing work on the interior and exterior. Crucial to the success of this program are the cultural education and support components, in which all youth participate. Youth graduate from the program as healthier people, skilled employees, and experienced community-builders.

Research Team and Process

Our research team was composed of two university researchers, a graduate and undergraduate student, the AYR coordinator, and a group of Aboriginal youth involved in the AYR. We met as a team on several occasions to determine the questions that should be asked, who they should be asked of, and what to do with the results. As we were all getting to know one another the meetings started out as very general, and gradually, became more specific. The team determined that Aboriginal men and women as well as social agencies in the North End should be interviewed to get their perceptions of community health, including their past experiences, present realities, and what they saw for the future of their neighbourhoods. The AYR participants were interested in interviewing each other during a series of group interviews, and meeting individually with the coordinator and university researchers for interviews. The group felt that a woman from the community would be better placed to interview other women and the team decided to hire another local resident to be involved in the other interviews. It was seen as important by the AYR participants to get the results of this study out in different ways, including written and oral. Together, the team drafted a paper and gave a group presentation at an international academic conference in Toronto and hosted a local community gathering attended by about 150 people, to recognize the contributions made in their own neighbourhood to housing and community health.


The results that follow are based on large group and individual interviews. We conducted a series of four focus group interviews with a core group of between 8 and 12 participants. In addition, we interviewed six focus group participants one-on-one in order to expand the data by probing deeper into issues raised during the focus groups. Participants were between the ages of 21 and 33 years. All had done time during their adolescence and/or adulthood. Between the twelve young men, over 100 years had been served in corrections facilities. Most had spent a significant proportion of their childhood in the North End and only one no longer resided in the neighbourhood. All had interrupted or disrupted histories in school and few had gone beyond a grade seven or eight education. The majority of participants had large families with up to five children that included multiple parenting responsibilities for biological offspring, stepchildren, and younger siblings; all of whom these young men cared for as their own.

The data were reviewed and analyzed by the team, including university researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, the AYR coordinator, and participants. Participants also viewed the findings and provided feedback, which was incorporated into the final report.


The youth described a variety of experiences growing up in the inner city, the challenges they faced reintegrating into the community after a period of incarceration, their sources of strength, efforts they were making to enhance community health, and the visions for the future of their neighborhoods.

Experiences Growing Up

Most of the young men in our study were raised by their mothers and had a very deep respect for them. Several reported feeling abandoned or mistreated by a parent, usually their fathers, which caused some anger and resentment. Others had positive relationships with parents.
 She [mother] taught me how to care for people and look after
 things. She was the only person I looked up to.

 It bothers me. 1 feel pissed off about this. I never had a dad to
 be there for me. I just had friends and brothers. I had a step-dad
 for a bit.

 My step-dad is a medicine man. I go and visit him for a week
 each winter. We talk and hunt.

 My step-dad used to beat me up.

Many had parents who had grown up in the residential school system, which participants identified as contributing to the oppression of Aboriginal people. They said that the residential school system started the intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect.
 If you don't deal with your issues you just pass it on. Residential
 schools resulted in lots of anger, grief, hurt. This produces a
 cycle you can't get out of.

All of the young men in our study reported growing up in poverty. They said that "there were too many needs, not enough resources." At an early age they adopted a personal motto: "You do what you have to do to survive." For most, surviving required them to supplement their families' incomes through involvement in the drug trade, which started as early as eight-years-old. These activities often brought them into contact with the youth justice system and many "grew up in the system." Several participants spent the entire span of their teenage years incarcerated. For example, one participant reported that he was locked up between the ages of twelve and twenty, while another was in from fourteen to twenty-three. Boredom was another reason these young men got into trouble in their youth. They noted a lack of recreational facilities in the area particularly ones open at night.
 You don't understand how fucking poor we are. If necessary
 you bend the law in order to survive.

 I never got birthday or Christmas presents ... I was terrorized
 by my brother who was ten years older than me so I was
 never home. I found the streets.

 There was no community centre or place to hang out. Any that
 were around were too far away. You hang out with bad people
 at night. That's how gang life starts.

All of the young men in our study had left school before graduating; some did so as early as grade seven. Most said they dropped out for economic reasons; namely they could not afford the things they needed to go to school and fit in. A few reported that they were not liked by teachers, which contributed to their decision to leave school. Some alluded to difficulties with learning while others reported that school was easy and they got good grades. Finally, being incarcerated was another reason for leaving school although many upgraded while serving time.
 When you're poor, you look shaggy. You've got holes in your
 pants. You need to feel good about yourself. Lots of kids' quit
 going to school. They're embarrassed because they're from
 poor families.

 I started grade 12 but I dropped out because it was a money
 thing. I had a hard time because I had no lunch money and no
 bus money.

 At school, the teachers didn't like me. They passed me to
 get rid of me, but the principal stuck up for me. I missed a
 lot of school. I was stubborn and lazy. I can't read fast and
 I write slow.

 I ended up in jail, got a record, dropped out of school.

For most of the young men in our study, their lack of education and history with the police were barriers to the lives they wanted to lead as adults.

Challenges Reintegrating

Upon leaving an institution, our participants said that they encountered difficulty in re-establishing their lives. The first barrier they often faced was overcoming their reputations in the neighbourhood. They perceived that other community residents did not want them living there.
 People in the neighbourhood think we're pretty bad. They look
 at us as criminals who kill people.

Some were worried they would be pulled back into the system because of their records and associates. They were required to avoid contact with others who had justice system involvement; however, since many members of their social networks had records, they were torn between meeting the conditions of their parole and getting the social support they needed.
 I'm looking for freedom and peace and keeping both feet out
 of the [justice] system.

 Probation officers separate bros because they're gang

Several reported that they would not be working without the AYR because their criminal records and lack of education presented a significant barrier to finding employment. They also said that work was needed to break down stereotypes between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Racism was cited as a factor that limited their opportunities to find work and education programs. When they were able to find work, it often paid minimum wage, which they said was insufficient to support themselves and their families.
 I feel hopelessness because of my criminal record. I know I
 threw a lot away. I'm searching for a purpose. I don't know
 what it is yet, but it makes me want to try harder. I want to
 give back to my family and friends.

 We need more interaction with White people because there's
 a lot of racism. People have to remember that there is good
 and bad in both camps.

 The jobs in the neighbourhood are inadequate. Minimum wage
 just isn't enough to live on. We face a lot of barriers because
 of our records and racism.

Without decent employment, many were forced to look at other ways to support themselves and their families. Several said that they had too much pride to "take handouts" and rely on the welfare system because they wanted to rebuild their lives on their own terms.
 Without a job how will I get money? The only way I know is to
 sell drugs. This is my very first job [AYR]; my first training
 program. It's a whole new way of being and thinking.

 The people I used to know are either in jail, in another city, or
 dead. I feel like my future is pretty limited because I used to do
 B & Es, jack people.

 Welfare is belittling because you always have to answer to
 someone. You have to beg.

Often, their female partners received benefits from the income support system, which undermined the young men's traditional roles as provider and protector. The women were collecting welfare as single parents, which meant that if their male partners were caught staying or living with them they would be cut off. The young men did not have adequate, stable employment that would enable them to fully support their families without social assistance. As a result, they were forced to lead double lives in which they sometimes lived as single men with their friends and other times played the role of family man with their partners and children. This double life often led to conflicts with partners who resented the freedom the men had while living as bachelors. The instability in their relationships with partners strengthened their bonds to friends who took care of one another.
 The welfare system captures and imprisons you. Poverty
 doesn't allow the men to provide for their families. It tears you
 down as a person and family.

 On welfare you can't have a personal life. She gets cut-off if
 they [welfare workers] find out the guy is staying there. She
 gets pissed off and kicks him out. He needs to find someplace
 else to live.

 I have to keep my friends because I'm not sure if she [partner]
 will be with me at the end.

Despite the considerable challenges these young men faced in their lives, they were deeply concerned with the state of their community and the well-being of its residents. Their overall attitude was that they could take care of themselves, but someone had to look out for others in the community, especially children. It was this desire to give back to their community that motivated them to participate in the AYR.

Personal Motivations and Strengths

A key theme that emerged from our interviews was that the young men regarded their parents' generation as a "lost cause" and their children as the generation that would usher in a new era for Aboriginal peoples. They saw their roles as being "the guardians of the future"; they took personal responsibility for providing for and protecting the children in their communities. Their own childhood experiences strengthened their resolve to give their children the things they never had. All said that their children were their motivation for staying out of jail. Participants said that they wanted their children to be proud of their accomplishments.
 If I didn't have kids, I'd be in jail.

 My kids make me feel better. I don't know what I'd do without
 them. I take them to school and I pick them up from daycare ... It's
 really hard to keep things going but they're mine. Even if I
 go drinking, I check on them. I miss them if I'm away all day.

 I'm trying to be a role model. I can't do anything for my kids in
 jail. I do the best I can.

 I visit my kids to get my head straight and refocus. I vowed
 that my kids would never see me in jail.

Another resource about which our participants talked extensively was being "rich in family." When asked to define who made up their families, most included extended family members, stepchildren, and non-relatives. The most important group in the non-relatives category were their friends. For many their male friends were among the most stable and close relationships they had. They also discussed the importance of sharing resources, which they said they did freely and with no expectation of repayment. They collectively took on the responsibility of policing the neighbourhood in order to protect those who were vulnerable because the police did not give people in their community the same level of service as White, middle-class communities.
 We're all brothers with different mothers.

 [My bro] helps me out as an older brother. I live at his place
 and he looks out for me.

 The bros share money and everything else.

 Sharing is important. It's important to know people and keep
 friends because somebody will have resources when you don't.

Most participants said that Aboriginal cultures and traditions were resources upon which they drew guidance and strength. Some said that residential schools had robbed their families of cultural knowledge and parenting experience, which prevented them from learning the ways of their people. Several noted that they had to go to prison to learn about their culture from Elders who worked in the corrections system, which they found ironic.
 Tradition is important enough to die for--the ceremony, the
 tobacco, the sun dance. It's been a way of life for thousands
 of years that provides direction, but it's hard to maintain.

 I take the Red Road. I grew up with it, but I chose that path
 seven or eight years ago. I was jumped and put in a coma for
 a month. A pipe ceremony was performed that helped me
 recover. I felt no power with the Christian traditions. When I
 started following the Red Road positive things have happened
 for me. I sought help from Elders and culture in order to get
 my kids back [from ex-wife].

 God took my culture away ... My mother wouldn't teach me
 our language because the residential schools taught her it was
 evil. She was afraid that she would go back to residential school
 if she learned her language.

A final resource was the inner strength and determination of the young men in the AYR to seek out different ways of "being" and "living." Participants said that they wanted to stop negative cycles for the good of themselves, their families, and their community.
 I keep me from all that [drugs, alcohol, and violence]. I see
 what it's done to other people and I'm not going there.

 I wouldn't raise kids under the circumstances I was. I can't
 care for myself let alone children. I don't want my kids to
 grow up in a single parent family like I did. I want them to have
 a loving family.

 You have to deal honestly with yourself and other people. You
 have to deal with yourself and become a straight arrow. You
 have to make things happen.

An integral part of the transformation through which these young men were going was the AYR. Not only did the program give them money, work experience, and training in the trades, it also gave them hope for the future and an opportunity to play an active role in rebuilding their community.

Building Community

Our participants credited the AYR as the primary reason that they were succeeding in re-establishing themselves in the community. They said the program gave them an opportunity to give back.
 We're giving back. We didn't have the best backgrounds, but
 there were people who helped us. We wanted to give back to
 the community and look after the kids. Kids are very
 impressionable. Some people here really want to make change
 and they can still have an influence.

 I feel good about giving back to the community. Having a job
 has built my self-confidence and self-esteem. I'm inspired by
 the accomplishments of the other guys in the program.

 It's [AYR] keeping me out of trouble. It keeps my mind going
 on things; stops you from being bored. If you're bored and
 there's no excitement then you do crime.

 Working's not so bad. It's close to home. You know everyone
 in the area. You work with friends. You get along great with
 the bosses. It's a very tight neighbourhood.

The men in the AYR talked about the reasons that the program worked for them. They said it was important to work with people who had "been there and done that;" in other words, to have co-workers and supervisors who understood their histories and realities. An important feature of the program was that the young men guided the program by making decisions such as who was accepted into it. The program gave them something to do; boredom was cited as a reason for getting into trouble. It also enabled the men to earn money in order to support their families. Finally, it acculturated them to a new way of life that they said helped them to transcend a "party lifestyle."
 I like the job because of the guys. We laugh. It's North End
 Housing [Project]; it's close by. It's the path I took; it fits.
 It's carpentry and I have the right training for it. I work with
 friends and family. It puts money in my pocket.

 Too many programs are based on timelines, but they have to
 be portable in order to move with reality. This program works
 because it's flexible. At most jobs when family responsibilities
 get in the way, no one asks, "Why did you miss work?" I was
 at home with the kids because my old lady left.

 Each person finds a different way to escape from the stresses
 of and pressures of life. Some people drink. They do drugs.
 It's no good for the real self. You can't really do that and be
 part of the program.

Youth saw their participation in the AYR as a tangible way of contributing to their community in a positive way; however, their vision extended beyond the revitalization of houses.

Visions for the Future

They were deeply concerned with the well being of others in the community, particularly children. The youth discussed the following as community needs: affordable housing; daycares; activities for children; supervised parks with green space; street lights and crosswalks; higher minimum wage; opportunities to learn about Aboriginal cultures; home childcare; community activities, such as barbeques, feasts, or Pow Wows; libraries and computers for kids; university in the neighbourhood where kids can go when they finish school; and a North End "mayor" or community leader.
 Kids need big brothers; people they can trust. People who will
 look after them, watch over them, and make sure they're okay.

 The neighbourhood needs lots of things--daycare, better
 schools, more work, less cops. There are too many cops around
 here. They're always riding up our ass.

One participant described the primary issue in the community by saying:
 There's little opportunity in the inner city. Someone has to give
 us a chance. We need to help each other out. It needs to go
 bigger to repair the community.


As our participants demonstrated, many inner city residents are working toward building a healthy community. However, they also faced many barriers, including experiences with racism, family histories with residential school experiences, the need to help support their families at a young age, as well as difficulty with school and the law. After doing time and returning to their neighbourhoods, they wanted to look after themselves and their families. But the stigma of a record posed an obstacle to finding employment. They looked after each other and their families the best they could, without much money, and drew upon the strengths of Traditional people and teachings to help themselves and others. When presented with the opportunity to work in their own neighbourhood, learn a trade, and make a contribution to the poor housing situation their community faced, they saw it as a chance to give back. Seeing the children as the future of the neighbourhood, they worked toward a vision of community health where the children were looked after and had more opportunities than they themselves had.

Like others who have defined "healthy communities" (Centres for Disease Control, 2005; Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition, 2005), the youth in this study saw the need for resident self-determination and opportunities that promote well-being, as well as participation, inclusion and interdependence. Having been denied opportunities themselves, they saw the need to promote opportunities for others. They were also quite clear about the barriers they faced and must be addressed for the next generation to live in healthier communities.

The young men we spoke to faced racism, stigma associated with their past justice involvement, as well as their young age. The program they were involved in was one of the few organizations where they were included in major decisions. Opportunities for inclusion in other community agencies as decision-makers would broaden their involvement in organizational and community change. Due to many experiences of exclusion, particular effort must be made to build relationships and trust in order to extend a meaningful invitation to participate in community decisions. For example, these men know a lot about affordable housing from their work experience and experience as residents who have encountered multiple barriers to obtaining decent housing for themselves and their families. They should be consulted by policymakers at the federal, provincial and municipal levels for their perceptions about how government housing money should be spent.

The results highlight the benefits of community economic development strategies that increase opportunities for education, training, and employment generate skills within the neighbourhood and improve resident well being. The AYR is a stellar example of a program that provides skill development and employment for residents, as well as cultural education and support to local families. Another asset of this program is the product. Residents are building homes for their neighbours who would not otherwise have the opportunity to own a home. The benefits of this program extend beyond those directly involved on the front lines of delivery to the families of those involved, as well as other residents who inhabit the homes they build and to those who live in the same block and neighbourhood. However, the results are not quickly obtained nor easily measured. Funders should recognize this by providing a long-term investment strategy and establish creative and culturally sensitive indicators of short-term impact (e.g. youth involvement in community events).

Inner city communities need amenities that have a positive orientation, such as recreation facilities. All participants described themselves in relation to their families. There is a need for family-centered services that are sensitive to the issues faced by men who have been involved in the justice system, such as reunification with partners and children after months or years of institutionalization, the impact of having a criminal record on getting a job, or the effect of a limited work history and lack of housing references. Mandated services through corrections or child protection require compliance with someone else's rules about how they should behave, and enforce rule with the threat of punishment. This does little to promote or reinforce responsibility to one's family. Rather, it promotes responsibility to systems. Advocates for these men as "family men" are necessary so that the systems they are or may become involved with take the needs and strengths of partners and children, as well as other family members, into account.

Agencies can play a vital role in community building by serving as a bridge between community and government, which will ensure the voices of residents are heard. Assisting residents in overcoming multiple barriers requires coordination between agencies offering different services in order to provide the appropriate resources. Finally, government needs to consult with inner city residents, collectives, and agencies about funding and policy needs and gaps.


Aboriginal youth who live in urban core areas have not been depicted as assets to their communities. Yet they are the future leaders and active contributors who are well positioned to speak out about the needs and challenges they face, as well as the potential they see for healthy neighbourhoods. Participatory research provided a way to engage youth and influence the research agenda so that their wisdom was respected and their voices heard. It took time to build a relationship and develop the study, but the process and results have added credibility because of the support of both the community and the researchers. We believe that participatory approaches to research with Aboriginal youth in urban communities work, but not without a lot of effort by all involved.

In this study we found many examples of youths' personal strength through adversity, the respect and maintenance of cultural values such as sharing and caring for others, despite multiple personal, family and systemic challenges. The stories of youth show their concern for future generations. They see their actions as paving the way for children of the community to have a better life than they did. They put those words into action by building homes for their neighbours, families and children. Clearly, they believe that building healthy communities depends on words and actions.


This research project was financially supported by the Winnipeg Inner-city Research Alliance (WIRA) which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHC) and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).


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Jason Brown

Nancy Higgitt

Susan Wingert

Christine Miller

Department of Family Social Sciences

University of Manitoba

Larry Morrissette

North End Housing Project
Table 1: Selected Point Douglas South
Neighbourhood Cluster Demographics (2001)
 Point Douglas City of
 South Winnipeg

Total Population 11,350 619,544
Proportion Reporting Aboriginal Origin 37.6% 9.6%
Proportion of 15-24
 Year Olds Attending School 48.6% 58.6%
Proportion of Population
 20+ with Less than Grade 9 23.2% 7.8%
Employment Rate (15 years and older) 42.2% 64.2%
Average Annual Employment Income $17,870 $29,165
Proportion of Families
 with Low Income (2000) 51.5% 15.5%
Dwelling Tenure-Rented 66.7% 36.4%
Proportion of Dwellings in Need of Repair 48.5% 38.0%
Average Monthly Rent $425 $541
Proportion who Moved Between 2000 and 2001 23.8% 15.1%

Source: City of Winnipeg Neighbourhood Profiles, 2001
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Author:Brown, Jason; Higgitt, Nancy; Wingert, Susan; Miller Christine; Morrissette, Larry
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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