Its Métis Week in Edmonton, celebrated annually by the Métis Nation of Alberta during the week of November 16: the day Louis Riel was executed. The City of Edmonton has a Memorandum of Shared Recognition and Cooperation with the MNA and each year as part of this relationship, they fly the Métis Flag at City Hall. The question I have been asking myself this week, and for a while frankly, is this what reconciliation has come to in our city? A hour-long ceremonial gesture once a year?
More than a decade ago, as a resident of the city and a member of the then-existing Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Affairs Committee, I supported the City of Edmonton in the creation of the Edmonton Urban Aboriginal Accord. This document and process was supposed to be the dawn of a new era of municipalities working with Indigenous Peoples. The initiative was based on four guiding principles:
- Relationships – enhance and promote positive perceptions and attitudes between Aboriginal communities and the City of Edmonton
- Agreements – explore and create agreements that enrich community life
- Celebrations – share the gifts of our relationship
- Renewal – renew and strengthen this relationship agreement
The City of Edmonton has actively committed to this accord in many ways over the past 12 years through the creation of the Indigenous Relations Office and MOUs with the Métis Nation of Alberta, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, and, most recently, with our neighbours Enoch Cree Nation. The question for me is how have these agreements filtered their way into City of Edmonton policy and practice.
Since signing this agreement, the Indigenous Relations Office has moved around within the City of Edmonton corporate structure. What once was a part of the City Manager’s Office, with influence over all city operations, now sits below a branch in a single department. This agreement is not only a commitment to the Indigenous peoples of our city, it’s a promise to do better. In order to do better for the long term, you have to commit to systemic policy changes and not just wave a flag once a year. For me, the hardest part of this work and the component of the accord that has seen no action is the principal of Renewal.
A lot has changed in the realm of Indigenous relations in the past decade, most notably is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. It has been nearly two years since the TRC completed its mandate and released its final 10-volume report and almost 4 years since its seventh and final National Event right here in our city. When the TRC was in Edmonton, Mayor Don Iveson proclaimed a Year of Reconciliation with the promise of three key initiatives:
- Educate all the city’s 11,000 staff on the history and impact of residential schools
- Get more Aboriginal youth involved in civic programs, fill gaps in city programming and allow youth to explore careers in the public service
- Create a public space in the city for Indigenous ceremonies and cultural programs
Since that time, the former City Council also made a commitment to commemorate the TRC event in our city and earmarked $200,000 from Council Contingency funds to this. The four initiatives ended up all being part of the TRC’s Calls to Action, released in June 2015. It looked liked Edmonton was once again at the forefront of this work in our country. But has any of this Year of Reconciliation stuff happened in our city? Is there any accountability for elected officials to do what they say they are going to do? The short answers are: some and no.
Here’s a quick progress report:
- The City of Edmonton has implemented a training program for employees to learn more about Indigenous Peoples, residential school, and historical trauma. The training is not mandatory and only a portion of employees are chosen to participate.
- The City has recreation programs for Indigenous youth, like the Nîkâniw Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and Flying Eagle, but these are not new and I have no idea if there has been increased participation.
- The City has been working with the community for years to allow ceremonial space within city limits and ceremonies have been taking place for more than a decade. There has been progress to further remediate a site in the river valley but this work was taking place long before the Year of Reconciliation, as stated on the City of Edmonton website.
- Preliminary consultation was completed on what type of commemoration the community would like to see to honour the TRC event in Edmonton. The City Council term has now ended and there has been no further mention of this work.
Ultimately, I think the biggest change that has come since Edmonton became the first major municipality in Canada to sign an agreement with the Indigenous community is the buzzword of reconciliation – it’s all of a sudden the cool thing to do or at least say you’re doing.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk around the name of Edmonton’s professional football team. For years there have been concerns over their derogatory name, especially with more organized campaigns in the US for sport team name changes. More than a year ago, at the Banff Forum, I had the opportunity to meet Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, who renewed the call for a team name change two years ago. We talked about the work I was doing around Indian hospitals and he brought up the Edmonton football team. I suggested that he talk to Mayor Iveson who was also at the conference and offered to introduce them. The two men had a private meeting and the mayor mentioned to me after that he was sympathetic to the cause but there was nothing he could do. Really? Yes, the team is a privately owned sports franchise but they train, practice, and play in a City of Edmonton owned facility. If the City wanted to step up, they have a lot of leverage to push the conversation.
As was pointed out through the work of the TRC, only ~5% of Canada’s population is Indigenous. If the societal changes necessary for reconciliation are even going to be possible, the other 95% of people have to be responsible for making it happen.
Edmontonians, these questions are for you:
- Do you want reconciliation?
- Are you committed to long term, sustained change to make it possible?
- Are you going to hold your elected officials accountable to make it happen?
Let’s continue with the annual events and ceremonial photo ops but don’t allow the cause of reconciliation to stop there. If we are going to eliminate poverty, end homelessness, decrease social isolation, and truly reconcile our shared past, this cannot easily be wrapped up in a four year term. It takes accountability, long term planning, and sustained public pressure. Let’s make it possible together.
Who’s really ready to play ball?