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Anti-colonial community planning

and ethical space 

October 24, 2023

A city skyline with migrating birds overhead and a municipal sign in the forefront that reads "welcome" in English, French and 5 Indigenous languages.

The Legacy of Planning

In the opening words of her 2020 contribution to Architecture Australia, Wanda Dalla Costa – faculty member at Arizona State University, the first female First Nations architect in Canada, and member of the Saddle Lake Nation – offered the following reflection,


…[Urban] and suburban areas are now home to nearly three quarters, or 72 percent, of all Indigenous people in the United States. Yet, while urban environments are becoming increasingly diverse, the profession of architecture ‘becomes more male and more white as experience levels increase.’ As a result, there is a disconnect between those who are designing cities and those who inhabit cities. How do cultural values, norms and aspirations become integrated into our urban environments if the people creating those urban environments have limited cultural understanding? 1 


The 2021 Canadian Census reported that approximately 44% (or 801,045) of all self-identifying Indigenous peoples live in urban areas. While this is substantially lower than the 72% referenced in the United States, it was a dramatic 12.5% increase over the 2016 Census figure,2  indicating a rapid rate of urbanization among Indigenous peoples in this country.

Della Costa’s reflections speak to two compounding challenges of representation that impact urban areas in Canada, and indeed countries across the colonized world.

First is a lack of representation within the professions that have a direct and long-term impact on the policy, design, and governance fabric of cities. This includes a lack of diversity among individuals working in architecture, design, planning, engineering and policy. The result is that there are not nearly enough individuals with the access, power and “professional skills” (at least those which are at present widely recognized) needed to, as Dalla Costa suggests, embed “cultural values, norms and aspirations” within urban areas.


I grew up realizing there is limited representation of Indigenous people in professional fields, and this was reflected on the architecture.3  - Nicole Luke, Inuk Designer


Second, a representation of Indigenous peoples is essentially absent from the physical, cultural and “story telling” structures that constitute urban spaces. That is, those elements which reflect a city’s values, history, and character to its residents and visitors. This includes tangible elements such as the names of roads, parks, and civic facilities, pieces of public art or other communal public realm assets (e.g., heritage plaques, statues, monuments). It also includes the ways in which the design of public space influences public discourse of how a place came to be. While in many cities these narratives are slowly changing, historically, narratives begin with the arrival of European settlers.

The result is that Indigenous peoples have essentially been, at best a footnote, and at worst completely erased from the public’s consciousness within the territories that they have and continue to occupy for millennia – this, despite the fact that no Canadian city exists outside of an Indigenous territory.

The historic and ongoing deficit of representation has created profound impacts on Canadian society. Perhaps one of the more striking sources of evidence is the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The National Inquiry’s Calls for Justice4  highlights the risks, vulnerabilities, violence and erasure that Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ peoples face within urban areas. This includes a lack of safe and affordable transportation (Call for Justice 4.8), inadequacy of housing (4.6) and shelter (16.19), and overrepresentation within criminal justice and social services systems.

Relevant to Dalla Costa’s words, the Calls for Justice also highlight the need to ensure barrier-free, rights- and distinction-based access to culture and safety within urban areas, in part because of the dramatic increase in urbanization and population growth among Indigenous peoples.


Indigenous communities – whether in cities or towns, on-reserve, in settlements, within treaties, on unceded land, or in Métis or Inuit Nunangat regions – often lack the healthy spaces that encourage growth, healing and prosperity. The built environment and sustainability are key realms of reparations.5  - Tiffany Shaw, Métis Architect and Public Artist


While the goal of increasing diversity and representation within professions, such as planning, is an important one, the timeframe within which real difference can be made by planners from equity-deserving backgrounds is, unfortunately generational. And when there is representation, individuals from these backgrounds face added pressures by being asked to be the voice for their community, whether or not it falls within their job description. What then should professions do to advance concepts like reconciliation, and companion concepts like inclusion, diversity, equity, and access? Reflecting on more than 10 years of work in the field of urban planning and the still emerging practices of municipal Indigenous relations and Indigenous place-keeping, I believe that planners are uniquely situated to play a leadership role in creating sustained, incremental shifts within the governance, physical and cultural fabrics of the urban places we love. This is in part because our skills are already leveraged as facilitators, convenors, knowledge synthesizers, and collaborators – whether it be with peers working within infrastructure and engineering, design and architecture, community services and recreation, or arts and culture. Moreover, as the nature of a planner’s work is inherently connected to land, people, culture, we can reflect values in the things we design – both tangible places, as well as more intangible plans and policies.


Whosoever’s land the structure is sitting on, people should feel represented, seen and safe.6 - Tiffany Creyke, Tāłtān Place-Based Indigenous Designer and Planner


The rapidly expanding public consciousness around truth and reconciliation compels planners (and aligned disciplines) to examine individual and collective roles in perpetuating forms of colonial violence and structural inequities against Indigenous Peoples and communities. As we approach a decade since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Actions7  we must now, however, move beyond simply holding a mirror up to ourselves and being satisfied with performative allyship, workshops, and social media posts. Planners must strive to be bold actors within our spheres of influence, to consider what reconciliation means to us as professionals within an influential profession.

The 2019 Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) “Policy on Planning Practice and Reconciliation8 did well to start that conversation by reflecting on the millennial and contemporary role that Indigenous peoples have played in planning for and managing landscapes. The policy identifies roles that planners and the institution of planning should take in situating truth and reconciliation within our work. This includes a focus on relationship building, professional development, and new approaches to engagement with Indigenous communities. We should see this policy as a call to action and hold the profession accountable to ensure both attention and action are sustained.

A trio of circular topographical maps, each with a leaf overlayed.


As someone working in the planning profession, I find it sometimes useful to abstract myself from my day-to-day work and reflect on the broader context. Anti-colonialism and post-colonialism are two concepts that I find helpful in framing planning context and the impact planners can have.

“Anti-colonialism” exists as a counterpoint to colonialism. It was pointedly summarized to me by Anishinaabekwe singer/songwriter Larissa Desrosiers as a concept fundamentally about White Supremacy9 .

Schaefer (2008) expands on this idea, noting that “Colonialism is a system of domination […] based on the belief that the subjugated people are inferior to the colonizers. The development of the European colonial project since the 16th century coincided with the development of the concept of racism and ethnocentrism, as well as the theory of Social Darwinism."10 

Planning laws, policies, and processes have entrenched racism and cultural genocide, and these have been defended and reinforced by planners. As examples we can look to the history of red-lining neighbourhoods11  and the use of land use zoning to segregate communities by race and income.12 13 

Within broader colonial processes, planners have contributed towards cultural genocide through our contributions to the active removal of Indigenous people from their lands, and the subsequent redistribution of these lands according to that infamous planning mantra of highest and best use. Through the separation of peoples from their lands, their attachments to family, culture, and language were further degraded and contributed to the crisis of belonging described in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

We must also recognize that many of the policies, laws, processes and philosophies meant to subjugate Indigenous peoples – particularly around land use and to control their ability to assert agency – remain relatively intact, and that therefore the colonial project is on-going.

The only way to counter this is by adopting "anti-colonialism” as a pathway to begin shifting us from our current state to something different: a slow forming, incrementally emerging future state of emancipation that is responsive to those strictly anti-colonial sentiments of respect, representation, and belonging.

To understand how the idea of “anti-colonialism” can act as a pathway to begin shifting us from our current state to something different, we need to first consider what exactly that future, post-colonial state looks like (despite current language around reconciliation, it is difficult to refer to that possible future state as “reconciled” given that there is no prior state of “conciliation” within the settler colonial geography to revert to).

Postcolonialism “refers both to a specific historical period or state of affairs [,…] the aftermath […] and to an intellectual and political project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of European [colonialism].14  

One potential version of post-colonialism is a slow forming, incrementally emerging future state of emancipation that is responsive to those strictly anti-colonial sentiments of respect, representation, and belonging.

In complex cultural geographies like Canada – home to approximately 1.8 million Indigenous peoples15 , from more than 600 distinct Nations, and speaking more than 70 distinct languages16  this future state may be difficult for many of us to imagine. However, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a framework that sheds light on how a post-colonial society, as manifested in its cities, could be planned, designed, and managed. UNDRIP addresses quite specifically the importance of access to culture, heritage, and language (e.g., Articles 11.1 and 12.1), including when Indigenous people are living outside of their communities (14.3), and participation within decision making structures (3 and 4)17.

Understanding that all cities in Canada exist within Indigenous territories means that tangible (i.e., specific cultural sites or landscapes) and intangible (i.e., stories, language, practices) cultural heritage exists in urban areas. How those spaces are (co)managed is a question that will become increasingly important and relevant to local government administrators and policy makers as UNDRIP becomes actioned into a legal framework within federal and provincial policy.18 

As we understand the broader context within which our work as planners exists, an important question emerges: if the planning profession desires to advance beyond performative allyship and policy statements, how then should it adapt its practices to advocate for anti-colonial outcomes?

Ethical Space

I believe Ethical Space is a useful approach to challenge and shift perspectives that can guide the work of anti-colonial planning.

Ethical Space is a term that was popularized by Indigenous Scholar Willie Ermine,19 through his 2007 article “The Ethical Space of Engagement.” Ermine describes Ethical Space as being “formed when two societies, with disparate worldviews, are poised to engage each other;” it is an “area between knowledge systems.” In that way, Ethical Space serves as both a pathway and outcome.

To add to this idea, Blackfoot thought leader Dr. Leroy Little Bear20 discusses the idea of “lenses,” through which different peoples see the world as being forged through a specific, long-term relationship to a particular cultural geography. Through that language, Ethical Space suggests people being able to temporarily peer around their lenses and appreciate a common humanity, or perhaps even glimpse at the world through another’s lens.

The idea of harnessing a space “between knowledge systems,” is at the core of what planners already do (it is important to note that Ethical Space isn’t about blending knowledge systems, but rather acknowledging the power of multiple ways of knowing). Planners already serve as peer leaders or knowledge synthesizers by bringing together knowledge from various disciplines to inform our work. Every day planners work with experts in stormwater management, transportation, housing, cultural services, economic development, and many others to create plans, policies, and pathways to enhance urban administration and governance.

If planners could apply the same spirit of collaboration and respect that is used with other professional disciplines to their work with Indigenous Peoples and knowledge systems, we would begin to incrementally dismantle oppressive systems and create more inclusive urban environments, for all. Without a change in approach we will continue to perpetuate the failings of the past (and present), as described by Tiffany Shaw:


While I have seen Indigenous communities lead strong conversations regarding autonomy, key decisions are still often made by non-Indigenous participants with little to no contextual knowledge of the Indigenous environments the work within, and the impacts their decisions have on the communities and the land itself.21


A topographical map and an aerial view of a city grid merge into each other.

Working in Ethical Spaces

But there is hope. Across Canada there are planners and aligned practitioners putting anti-colonial planning into action. My hope is that by sharing examples of their work, others can feel encouraged to adapt their practices, allowing us to incrementally shift the narrative around this form of equity work.

Be a peer leader.

Because of the unique work that planners do, and the wide variety of individuals we work with, including the public, subject matter experts and politicians, we have an opportunity to invite others to see the world in a slightly different way. Working as peer leaders we can encourage the formation of Ethical Space by working with our colleagues to question systems, structures, and policies.

This means, for examples ensuring opportunities for Indigenous ways of knowing, ecological knowledge, and lived experience to be used as building blocks to inform policy and understand potential implications (e.g., considering ecological impacts of land use decisions).

The City of Edmonton has been a leader in incorporating Indigenous traditional knowledge into a variety of land use projects. This includes applying that knowledge to develop long range plans at the neighbourhood and city level, and within infrastructure projects. Examples include the Capital Line South Light Rail Transit project22 and the City Plan,23 Edmonton’s long range official community plan. In addition to working with Indigenous Elders and technicians, the City of Edmonton has also been a leader in leveraging Gender Based Analysis (GBA+) as a framework for critically examining the legacies of planning policies, including through their recent update to the City’s Land Use Bylaw24. For planners looking for systems-thinking support to activate an equity lens in their work, GBA+ is a great place to start.

Many cities in Canada now also have Indigenous relations offices with staff who have expertise in supporting other professionals in navigating pathways to Ethical Space. This work is often guided by frameworks or policies that set the tone for how the work should be done (one of first such frameworks created in Canada was the City of Calgary’s White Goose Flying Report). Being a peer leader doesn’t mean working on one’s own; good leaders should work closely and in alignment with in-house experts.

Language and timelines are powerful.

Enacting anti-colonial planning practices means critically examining the context of the names we associate with people and places and ensuring equitable representation of Indigenous peoples in planning processes.

Many planning projects start by describing the history of an area or its cultural context as beginning at European exploration and settlement, ignoring, and thus erasing, the on-going and immemorial connections that Indigenous peoples have to a space. Alternatively, where those connections are acknowledged, they are often artificially constrained through expedient narratives (e.g., suggesting Indigenous peoples “no longer live here”, or that Indigenous cultures within in community are strictly confined to the past).

For example, the City of Lethbridge’s former Municipal Development Plan (MDP) referenced Indigenous heritage and culture through the lens of archaeology, thus limiting the extent to which Indigenous peoples were able to exert agency over future-focused cultural, heritage, or other policies. With the City’s 2021 update to its MDP,25 this fundamentally changed and Indigenous peoples were widely represented throughout the plan – a result of planners investing in significant relationship building work, and Indigenous peoples advising how and when they should be engaged and specifically how their input should be incorporated (a similar process was also taken by the City of Edmonton in the development of their City Plan).

More and more cities are beginning to “audit” their place names through the lenses of truth and reconciliation, as a recognition of the discursive power that language has and its ability to not only reflect, but generate values and a sense of belonging. Two recent examples include the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation’s Colonial Audit and the City of Lethbridge’s Indigenous Placemaking Strategy and Public Realm Audit.26 

The Vancouver Audit used a focus on truth and storytelling to critically examine places within the Board’s network of parks, while the Lethbridge audit worked directly with Blackfoot Confederacy Elders and Nation technicians to center the voices of Indigenous peoples as a way of understating how place names perpetuate harm, and conversely, how naming can be used as a source of empowerment and pride.

The movement to rename existing spaces and incorporate host Indigenous languages in the naming of new public spaces often stems from grassroots mobilization and requires significant time, political advocacy, public education campaigns and the development of strong ally networks. Links to recent new stories in this realm from places like Toronto,27 Winnipeg,28 Edmonton,29 and Calgary30 are provided in the endnotes.

Focus on the relationship, not the transaction.

Another anti-colonial approach is to shift our mindsets towards valuing relationships as the product of our work, rather than the plans and policies that we deliver. Thinking about relationships in this way forces us to imagine them as something requiring nurturing, resourcing, supporting, and above all, as mutually beneficial rather than transactional. An on-going relationship that serves all parties is an example of Ethical Space because it involves partners coming together to see the world through the others’ lens and to understand more deeply their needs and interests. Relationships forged in Ethical Space also rely on the relinquishing of power and privilege. As a result, productive relationships generate mutual respect, where each partner knows what the other values, offers, and needs.

A great example of this approach is the City of Ottawa - Anishinabe Algonquin Nation Civic Cultural Protocol.31 The protocol, which has been widely celebrated as a model for reconciliatory cultural policy planning, builds upon foundational relationship development work by the city and multiple host First Nations. It creates a framework for collaboration on arts, culture, and heritage issues, deepening the tangible representation of Anishinabe Algonquin peoples in Ottawa’s urban fabric, and within the day-to-day work of city planners.

When reimagining relationships as the goal of our work, another approach is to challenge entrenched power dynamics. The power, privilege, and positionality that planners have historically used to develop policies and plans for “the good of others,” has relegated community members, and in particular equity deserving communities, as nothing more than the subjects of regulations. This observation has been briefly touched upon in this article, and has been deeply expanded upon by others. Seeing relationships as ethical pathways frees us to consider multi-directional flows of knowledge, expertise, and information. This means that Indigenous peoples, through the gifting of knowledge and experience, are transformed from recipients of policy to the authors of it. Planners are transformed from leader to learner.

A slightly abstract example of this is Terence Radford’s landscape project called Manidoo Ogitigan32 (Spirit Garden), which was the result of ongoing relationship building work between the Alderville First Nation and City of Kingston. The public artwork, which challenges conventional ideas of what constitutes public art, takes the form of a piece of landscape architecture. The work embodies the idea of land reclamation or “land back” through the transformation of a manicured city park space through Indigenous ways of knowing. The strength of the project is not only in the visual and physical transformation of the park space, but also in its demonstration of how much stands to be gained through the relinquishing of power and the resulting reconstitution of land, people, and culture.


Planners have a great deal of influence and power within the communities they serve. Historically the planning profession has used this power to perpetuate colonialism and structural violence through the oppression of Indigenous and other equity-deserving communities. However, in the last several years our society has been awakened (with the support of the unwavering patience of Indigenous peoples) to the “mountain we must climb” to advance reconciliation (as the TRC Commissioners put it). With the countless resources that have been generated since those Calls to Action were released, it is time to demand greater accountability from planners and other professions.

We must demand greater action to not only call out the structures that hold people back, but also demand sustained action to rectify these harms, and recognize that different ways of knowing can make our cities even stronger and more welcoming.

It is time that more planners use their power and influence to reflect the needs and aspirations of others. We must remove the roadblocks that have so often prevented the ascension of Indigenous and equity-deserving persons into positions of leadership and influence, to, as Wanda Dalla Costa said, “integrate cultural values, norms and aspirations into our urban environments”.

About the Author

Perry Stein is a candidate member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Research Affiliate II of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy at the University of Lethbridge. Perry is also the Partner Services Manager at the City of Lethbridge where he creates opportunities for post-secondary faculty and students to be engaged in applied research partnerships with the City. Perry's background also includes work as planner, Indigenous relations advisor and community engagement specialist. He can be reached at perryastein@gmail.com.