The City of Yellowknife does not plan to renew the position of Indigenous relations advisor when the role’s 18-month term expires in February.
City Hall created the position in 2018 using federal funding. At the time, the City said the advisor would “provide guidance on how the City can enhance relationships with Indigenous peoples and governments and embed reconciliation into our core practices and decision-making.”
When the role was created, the City acknowledged funding had only been secured for an initial 18-month period – until early 2020 – but added “options to ensure sustainability beyond that are being considered.”
On Thursday, senior administrative officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett said none of those options had worked out. However, Bassi-Kellett said the City and Yellowknives Dene First Nation had made significant progress together and funding was now being sought to implement a reconciliation action plan.
In September 2018, Maggie Mercredi became the first Indigenous relations advisor appointed by the City. She remains in the role.
Mercredi declined an on-the-record interview on Thursday as she is busy working on the reconciliation action plan, seen as a fundamental part of the municipality’s bid to advance its relations with Indigenous people.
Bassi-Kellett told Cabin Radio the City’s budget, already stretched, did not currently include funding for the Indigenous relations advisor’s position to continue. (Because the initial funding came directly from the federal government, it doesn’t show up as a regular position in the budget.)
“We like to think we can get money from a lot of different sources but, with the percentage increase currently proposed, it’s tough,” said Bassi-Kellett. She was referring to the 8.5-percent property tax increase City Hall recently said was necessary to cover all the programs and services already offered or requested. Councillors have vowed to bring that percentage figure down, rather than up, when they go through the draft 2020 budget in the coming month.
“We hired a term position. We can’t put all the onus on one position to do this,” Bassi-Kellett added, in reference to the process of reconciliation.
She said the City would instead ensure its various divisions all do more to advance reconciliation. She listed residents’ suggestions ranging from signage in Indigenous languages through to “a monument for residential schools, a culturally sacred space, and an orientation for visitors and newcomers so they can begin to understand the richness and complexity of Indigenous rights and culture.”
Actions and commitments
In 2018, then-mayor Mark Heyck said Yellowknife was “actively working toward reconciliation and enhancing inclusion for Indigenous people” by appointing Mercredi to the position of Indigenous relations advisor.
“Maggie will enhance our work as leaders and role models in our relations with Indigenous people, groups, organizations, and governments,” Heyck said at the time.
However, several employees in private suggested the job description provided for the advisor lacked clarity, and staff had been unsure how to incorporate the advisor’s role into their work.
A brief job description posted online in 2018 says the City’s Indigenous relations advisor “develops and maintains networks and relationships in order to strengthen working relationships and enhance the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, cultures, and ways of work within the City of Yellowknife and its programs, services, and strategies.”
The job posting concludes: “While advancing reconciliation efforts overall, the Indigenous relations advisor collaborates on social development initiatives, including strategies to end homelessness, by seeking to build coalitions with governments and other partners that can bring cultural safety/sensitivity and an Indigenous lens to these issues.”
In a news release issued when she took the job, Mercredi said: “Reconciliation happens when we build bridges, honour our relationships, and commit to changes together.”
The City of Yellowknife has made a sustained effort to appear responsive to increasing calls for meaningful reconciliation in recent years.
In 2015, city councillors adopted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. Later that year, council also adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – in doing so, committing the City to finding “actions that bring meaning to these important symbolic commitments.”
Those steps were followed by the appointment of Mercredi in 2018. Funding for the post came from the federal government via Indigenous Services Canada, which operated a campaign named Urban Programming for Indigenous Peoples. The program gave money to initiatives “designed to assist First Nations, Inuit, and Métis living in or transitioning to urban centres.”
Bassi-Kellett said the City understood that “building relationships is a really key part of reconciliation.” A memorandum of understanding with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation had only just been finalized and signed, she added.
“The actions we take are things we want to make sure resonate with Indigenous people who come from all over the North, and who live in Yellowknife,” she said.