The multitude of planning concerns faced by Aboriginal communities across Canada hit national headlines a few weeks ago when Attawapiskat, a First Nations community of about 2,000 in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency. Horrific health conditions exacerbated by poor water supply, sewage problems, inadequate housing and schools resulting from decades of wrangling over governance and funding have devastated the community. The conditions prompted the Red Cross to provide emergency relief, provoked international criticism and launched intense debates in the House of Commons (“NDP challenges Harper to visit Attawapiskat himself”, The Globe and Mail November 30, 2011, “Aboriginal Affairs Minister dispatches team to Attawapiskat“, The Globe and Mail November 25, 2011). This is, in fact, the fourth time Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency due to chronic infrastructure failures. Many serious health and housing issues persist in Aboriginal communities. The need for First Nations, Inuit and Métis (who comprise Canada’s Aboriginal peoples) to use their own knowledge and self-determination in planning their communities, for planners to help with the development of local plans and help negotiate collaboration, has never been greater. On a hopeful note, the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) is embarking on a new initiative in 2012: the launch of the Indigenous Planning concentration within our current Masters program with the First Nations House of Learning.

SCARP professor Leonie Sandercock has been working with First Nations communities for several years. Her most recent work, the documentary film Finding Our Way, highlighted the decades of turmoil faced within the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band), the Cheslatta Carrier Band, and the Village of Burns Lake, BC. Dr. Sandercock has been instrumental in working with the First Nations House of Learning and members of the Musqueam, Carrier, Nisga’a and Cree Métis Nations to develop the Indigenous Planning concentration at SCARP. Professor Ted Jojola of the University of New Mexico Community and Regional Planning program also advised UBC on the creation of the program; the planning program at the UNM School of Architecture and Planning has an Indigenous Planning component and hosts an Indigenous Architecture lecture series. Dr. Jojola visited UBC recently for an “Indigenous Planning Teach-In” hosted by SCARP and the First Nations House of Learning. At this event the Tsawwassen First Nation, Musqueam First Nation and Westbank First Nation presented their community plans, highlighting public participation processes and the role of external planners as consultants in plan development. Several non-Aboriginal professionals specializing in law, governance, community economic development, and cross-cultural planning spoke about their work with Aboriginal communities across Canada. (Watch a video about the development of the degree, featuring scenes from the Teach-In, here.)

There have been some fantastic examples of Aboriginal community planning in recent years: the Seabird Island First Nation in BC built its own housing in partnership with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), National Resources Canada (NRCan), and 25 building industry and community groups in 2003-2004. They later launched the Seabird Sustainable Community Project to provide “information to First Nations and other communities across Canada solve housing challenges in an environmentally sensitive, healthy, energy-efficient and affordable way.” The Ty-Histanis Neighbourhood Development, about 10km from Tofino, BC, is a new community being developed by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations (TFN) in partnership with CMHC and NRCan (ecoAction and EQuilibrium Communities Initiative). It is applies the TFN concept of Hishuk nish tsawaak (all is one), through practical, sustainable community development principles. The new community will include 171 single-detached units, 32 duplex units and a 12-unit elders’ complex; a school, health clinic, pharmacy, recreation centre, youth centre and elder centre are all located in the core area. The project target is a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, mostly through building and energy efficiency. Forty per cent of the development site will remain undisturbed protected habitat, bogs will be used for natural water retention, and walking will be encouraged through footpaths and the mixed-use design of the site.

Clearly, there are many opportunities for planners in Aboriginal communities, whether they are local, community-based planners or  external consultants in the planning process. SCARP’s new Indigenous Planning concentration will consist of five core courses covering law and governance, community economic development, regional sustainability planning, cross-cultural skills, and indigenous planning as an emerging paradigm. It will also feature a one-year practicum working in a First Nations community in BC and an optional internship with a First Nations community in the Lower Mainland. It is hoped that graduates (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) will go on to ensure immediate infrastructure concerns are addressed, help communities across the country plan for their futures and, over time, prevent crises like Attawapiskat.

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