This is hardly surprising. The world over, cultures have progressed and thrived when forced to integrate with others, while those that are isolated all too frequently wither.
Saskatchewan actor and stage director Floyd Favel Starr discovered this while studying theatre in Denmark. Having grown up on the Poundmaker reserve northwest of Saskatoon, he often worried about assimilation. But then he met a Buddhist monk who spoke his own language, had his own cultural identity and yet was a man of the world. Starr realized how cloistered Canadian natives could be.
"There's no fear of assimilation if you practise your own culture and language," he argues. "Assimilation is not something to fear. Assimilation is up to the individual. In a way, assimilation is self-created."
The idea that natives are more exposed than ever to bigger cultures, and yet have a greater sense of self today than a generation ago, can be found among the many aboriginal groups pushing for their own churches, their own school systems, even their own Olympic hockey team. These are no longer signs of insecurity, but declarations of ownership.
Do they suggest that the image of a Canadian apartheid is overstated?
Sadly, no. As much as Leach, Milliken and Starr represent hope for both their nations and their country, they remain the exceptions. They live and work in non-native cities, and what can be said about them cannot be said of their reserve cousins.
For all that has changed in modern aboriginal life - much for better, some for worse - the reserve system continues to isolate and stifle. It also remains the greatest wall between native and non-native Canada.
I was struck in my own travels to see how so many of the most confident, and by mainstream standards successful, natives I met - digital entrepreneur John Bernard, corporate deal-maker Bernd Christmas, actress Edna Rain - had spent a good chunk of their lives in integrated communities. They got beyond the walls that so many native leaders have built around their communities and reinforced with the steel of federal money.
But I also came to believe that reserves do not have to be the psychological prisons that so many have become. They need not be the Canadian ghetto. Maureen Brown, a dynamic Cree in northern Manitoba, came to a better understanding of her reserve only when she left it as a young woman. Wanting to develop herself as an individual, she ended up in Vancouver.
But years later, as her own children were growing up amid a freedom she had not felt back home, she began to realize that they were also missing out on something. Security was one asset the reserve could offer that the city could not, but so was a deeper connection with family, ancestors and land. This sense of place is as important as a sense of self, even for someone who has moved thousands of kilometres away. Perhaps it is how Jews feel about Israel.
Brown finally packed up her husband and kids and moved back to Manitoba, at least for a while. The kids are now growing up Cree, and renewing their mother's bond with culture and history. They are comfortable as citizens of two nations.
Most Canadians appear to be comfortable with this notion of citizens-plus, so much so that it is questioned only on the margins of political debate. The greater challenge for two nations trying to co-exist in a single country is in the management of each.
For too long the Canadian nation has tried to manage the affairs of the aboriginal nation. We still do. On one level, there is a practical need for this: Most aboriginal communities are too small to manage their affairs effectively without some external check on power.
To change this, a new age of accountability is needed desperately. It's what Robert Nault, the current Indian Affairs Minister, has been trying to do in his hope to amend the Indian Act with modern concepts of democracy. The Supreme Court of Canada has done even more, with 1999 Corbiere decision that allows all eligible members of a band, whether on a reserve or off, to vote in its elections. Suddenly, chiefs and councils have to answer to people on the other side of the wall.
But ultimately to succeed, democratic reforms must come from within, and be developed, refined and cherished by the local population.
Such a democracy must also spread to economic interests, which remain communal on too many reserves. Without private property and the rights that go with it, without commercial interests that are protected from political interests, without the very foundations of trade, investment and finance, few reserves can be expected to escape poverty. They certainly won't do it relying on government assistance.
Many native communities are already showing the way, along with big business, which, frankly, hopes to avoid confrontation as it tries to secure access to resources and a local labour pool in remote places. From the diamond fields of the Arctic to the oil sands of Alberta and on to the fisheries of the Atlantic, no major business project is now undertaken without some consideration of native concerns. And usually a lot more, starting with a seat at the board table.