URBAN ABORIGINAL PEOPLES STUDY (UAPS)
The Environics Institute for Survey Research is a non-profit foundation established in 2006 by Michael Adams to sponsor relevant and original public opinion, attitude and social values research related to public policy and social change. The Institute’s mandate is to survey individuals and groups not usually heard from, using questions not usually asked. Integral to the Institute’s mission it the broad dissemination of its research to stimulate constructive discourse and support the development of informed responses to policy and social challenges.
The 2006 Canadian census reported that a majority of Aboriginal people in Canada now live in cities. Urban Aboriginal peoples are increasingly a significant social, economic and political presence in Canadian cities today, and yet there is remarkably little known about them. The focus of government and media has been on Aboriginal peoples living on reserves, on conflicts centred around land claims and rights, on problems such as violence, addiction and poor living conditions and on past injustices (e.g. Residential Schools), rather than on the present reality and future potential.
In 2008, the Environics Institute launched the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (UAPS), the first-ever national study of urban Aboriginal Peoples in Canada to advance and reframe the national conversation with and among Aboriginal peoples through an innovative and multifaceted research study. This research seeks to better understand and document the experiences, aspirations, expectations, and identities of Aboriginal people, exploring new areas of inquiry such as the factors leading Aboriginal peoples toward success, autonomy, cultural confidence and spiritual meaning. The study also included a complementary survey of non-Aboriginal Canadians to measure their understanding and perspective on their urban Aboriginal neighbours.
This landmark study presented several unique challenges: 1) defining and sampling an urban population that is among the most difficult to identify and locate; 2) collecting meaningful data in a respectful way with individuals understandably distrustful of institutional research that lacked appreciation of Aboriginal culture and never benefitted their communities; and 3) navigating the complex world of Aboriginal politics, long fraught with conflict and competing agendas from many stakeholders within and outside the Aboriginal community.
These challenges were successfully overcome through a number of innovative approaches taken in the design and implementation of the UAPS.
- Making it an Aboriginal research project. To ensure the research fully reflected Aboriginal perspectives, the project was mostly guided and implemented by Aboriginal individuals and others with established expertise in Aboriginal issues. The Institute formed an Advisory Circle of recognized experts from academia, Aboriginal communities (representing First Nations, Métis and Inuit, and different regions), who as volunteers served as the primary guides to both the research focus and the interpretation of results. Aboriginal individuals were hired as project managers, local city coordinators, interviewers, and data coders. Connections were made with Aboriginal organizations and agencies (e.g. Friendship Centres) in each of the project cities, to help publicize the study and connect with local communities. These steps helped to establish the legitimacy and value of the initiative with Aboriginal organizations and communities.
- Approaching the initiative as an independent actor. Key to the success of navigating the shoals of Aboriginal politics was the fact that the Environics Institute – unlike most other actors in this area - approached the initiative as an independent, non-profit organization with no previous profile or established position on Aboriginal issues. From the very beginning, the Institute contacted a wide range of stakeholders across the country to advise them of the initiative, meet where requested, and keep them informed of its progress. This provided credibility for the project, and minimized the degree of distrust and resistance that typically emerges every time a new Aboriginal initiative is launched.
- Adapting research methods to fit the requirements. Successfully conducting in-depth research with Canada’s urban Aboriginal Peoples could not be accomplished through the standard toolbox of survey research techniques. The sampling challenge was overcome through a “quota-sample” design that used the current Census profile of urban Aboriginal populations in each city to establish firm quotas by a range of socio-demographics (e.g. identity group, age, education, gender), from which to construct a representative sample in each city. Local project teams in each city then used this sample frame to identify eligible respondents through a range of methods (e.g. Aboriginal organizations, networking, snowball sampling) to capture the full range of the population (including homeless individuals).
The challenge of collecting meaningful data in a respectful way was accomplished by using in-person interviews conducted by Aboriginal individuals (mostly students).
The UAPS has been fully successful in achieving its research objectives, as well as policy impact to date:
- Successful completion of the research. The study achieved its ambitious research objectives, despite the view of some that it would not be possible to identify a representative population of urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s cities, accurately capture and document the experiences of this population, or gain the trust of the Aboriginal community. One major sponsor acknowledged once the study was completed that knowing the obstacles, he did not know if the project could succeed.
- Legitimacy with Aboriginal community. The success of the study was possible in part because the research design and consultation process gained the trust and acceptance of Aboriginal organizations at the local, provincial and national levels, as well as with non-Aboriginal stakeholders (e.g. governments, academic experts). Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Sean Atleo congratulated the Institute on the study, and stated that ”the UAPS is a contribution to an important conversation that needs to occur more broadly. . . and is a compelling call to action among all levels of government.”
- Policy Impact to date. Following its public release, the UAPS has generated considerable interest among stakeholders across the country, and has resulted in many requests for more detailed information and presentations. The study also attracted international interest: in April 2010, the Institute was invited to present the findings in NYC to a special meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Public engagement events are now taking place in many of the cities covered by the research, to report back to local communities on the findings to promote their application to policy and program development.
- Building capacity. Many Aboriginal individuals and organizations were directly involved in the UAPS research process, and this experience provided them with valuable skills and an appreciation of how such research can be valuable in benefiting their communities. It is expected that the UAPS will spawn further locally initiated research projects to apply this research approach in other communities and to delve more deeply into the insights already generated.
In May 2010, the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study was awarded the first-ever Public Policy Impact Award by the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA), awarded to a research project that has had a demonstrable public policy impact.
Visit the UAPS website.
Watch a video featuring UAPS participants.