More than 50 Yellowknife residents attended a City-organized reconciliation gathering in part hosted by Marie Wilson on Thursday evening.
What was heard at the gathering will form part of an action plan the City of Yellowknife is drafting. That could include the creation of sacred spaces, monuments, and programs.
Elder Beatrice Bernhardt, beginning the event, implored those in the room to listen.
“Lord, we ask that you open our hearts and our minds, that we may speak from a good heart,” said Bernhardt.
“And listen, listen, listen, listen, with good ears, to hear what the people are saying and sharing.”
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said actions taken by the City must begin to move beyond the symbolic.
“Flying the flag of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation at City Hall, for example. Very important to do,” said Bassi-Kellett. “But does it change lives? Does it change attitudes? Does it make our community more inclusive?”
The actions the City is looking to take, Bassi-Kellett said, are meant to make the community more respectful and culturally safe, while honouring the history and truths of the area’s colonial legacy.
Wilson, who served as a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, detailed several of the commission’s calls to action that could happen at a municipal level.
These include implementing Jordan’s Principle (call #3) and creating victim programs and services (call #40). Wilson also said the City can work on calls to identify residential school cemeteries, build a monument for residential school survivors, and ensure Indigenous athletes have access to facilities to foster their growth and development.
Some municipal responses to the commission’s calls to action have already begun.
For example, the City has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for the work it is doing on reconciliation. Wilson also acknowledged the City’s “big efforts” to educate staff about the history of colonization and residential schools.
Wilson reminded those gathered that the NWT has the longest-running continuous history of residential schools in the country, with the last of those closing in 1996.
“For that reason, we actually have the highest per-capita number of residential school survivors anywhere in the country,” she said. “That matters because the only demographic, the only population we have is the one we have. And the highest per-capita means the impact level is highly saturated.”
Marie Wilson, commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Ernie Bernhardt, a social worker and former Mayor of Kugluktuk, thanked the City of Yellowknife for taking what he called a “giant leap forward.”
Bernhardt is a residential school survivor. He was in the schools from the age of 10 months until he was 18 years old, and survived sexual abuse there.
He said the City was now recognizing that many of its citizens are survivors. “You have to remember too that you’ve got to include their kids and their kids,” he added.
Peter Allen, a longtime northerner who worked for the NWT government in its fledgling years, said harm reduction is one area cities can play a role in. This could include safe injection sites or a “moderate drinking supplement,” he said.
Allen believes this is the end of what he called a cycle. As a result, he said, work must also take place at the beginning of the cycle. Detecting what help descendants of residential school survivors need at schools, recreational programs, and non-profits, is somewhere the City can be involved, he said.
How to inform newcomers to Canada and Yellowknife about its history was tackled by several panellists.
Angelique Ruzindana Umunyana, a Yellowknife resident of 14 years originally from Rwanda, said that information needs to be provided as soon as newcomers get to Canada. She suggested creating a network between newcomers and Indigenous peoples.
Residents broke into smaller groups to share their ideas on what the City can do to further reconciliation. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
“When someone comes here, they get directed to that network, and then start the education right away instead of waiting for when you are ready to be a Canadian citizen,” she said. “That can take years, and some people don’t even apply for citizenship if they don’t need to.”
Creating a sacred space for ceremony is one suggestion noted in a City discussion paper on reconciliation. Roxanne Landry said such a space, inclusive of all spiritual beliefs, is needed.
“Right now there is no sacred space to go to, to vent your trauma, to feed the fire, to cry, just to let out a big scream without anybody phoning the police,” she said. “You know what that is like. If you’re out there hitting a tree, screaming and crying, somebody is going to be phoning.”
Michelle Miller, a young Inuk and Cree-Métis woman, shared her experience with racism as someone who is often seen as “white-passing.”
“Because I don’t have problems with drugs or alcohol and I am educated and have a home, they assume that I’m better than other Indigenous people, that I’m a model for Indigenous people,” she said.
Miller said the balance of power between the municipal and Yellowknives Dene governments needs to become equal. The City can still do more, she felt, to educate residents – including newcomers – about the history of Yellowknife.
Thursday was not the only opportunity to contribute in this fashion to the reconciliation action plan being drafted by the City.
Residents can still contribute by calling the City’s Indigenous relations advisor, Maggie Mercredi, at 867-669-3495 – or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.