Urban Aboriginal Connection launches in Wood Buffalo

By Lindsay Ducharme

The aboriginal community in Fort McMurray is about to be put on the map, literally, thanks to the Urban Aboriginal Connection which launched in Wood Buffalo on March 27th. Elena Jacobs, aboriginal relations manager with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, explained that the program, which was created from the federal government’s Urban Aboriginal Strategy, will strive to gain a better understanding of the challenges aboriginals in the region face in utilizing service providers.

“The goal of the urban aboriginal strategy is to improve the well-being of aboriginal people living in urban centers,” she explained.

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PHOTO by Anne Godwin

Jacobs said currently there are 13 cities across Canada, including Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge, which have been deemed “priority” cities to invest in urban aboriginal service providers. Organizers hope the Urban Aboriginal Connection will help to get Fort McMurray added as a designated city.

“The process to get to be a designated city is having very in depth conversations with the urban aboriginal population on their service priorities, what are they experiencing in terms of accessing services, are they the best services for their needs, are they culturally appropriate, what are the barriers to access these services. Services can be anything from health services, education, employment, identification, any interaction they need to have to live a healthy and successful life,” Jacobs said.

“With our region, we are so unique in that we don’t necessarily have a city, we have an urban service area and Fort McMurray is very much the service hub for our region and all the hamlets in our region. We don’t really have a sense of what are our community priorities; hopefully this program will change that. So far we have more of a reactive approach and this would be a more proactive approach,” she continued.

One of the first undertakings of the program will be vital to gaining an understanding of the services currently provided by creating a “service map.” The map will include information from the 2012 census, layered with the GPS coordinates of all service providers, and transportation corridors.

“This map will be able to show the physical barriers, for example Service Canada is located across the downtown core from Service Alberta and those two services are so pivotal and they need to be used together. Their locations are just not conducive for people that don’t have vehicles and a lot of aboriginal people seeking these services don’t have vehicles,” Jacobs explained.

“We really need the aboriginal groups to take ownership of this project so that it’s their roadmap for themselves not government or social service telling them the policies or what programs they need. My hope is to have up-to-date and clear understanding that we are providing the best services possible,” she added.
Jacobs believes the key to the success of the program stems from the ability to fully engage aboriginal groups within the community. She believes the steering committee, composed of three members form Athabasca Tribal Council, a member from Fort McMurray Metis Local 1935, a member from Fort McMurray Metis Local 2020, a member from Nistawoyou Friendship Centre and a member of the Urban Aboriginal Society will lead the Urban Aboriginal Connection in the right direction.

“The idea is that this isn’t’ the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s project, though we are very much invested in it and are investing a lot of staff hours and resources into the launch of this, but this has to be a community driven initiative to be successful,” she said.