A request to make the role of Indigenous relations advisor a permanent position at Yellowknife's City Hall was rejected on Tuesday, leaving the councillor who proposed the idea "really shocked."
As first reported by Cabin Radio in November, the post of Indigenous relations advisor is set to be phased out in February as 18 months of federal funding runs out. The current – and only – person to hold the role is Maggie Mercredi.
In the City's words, the advisor's job is to "provide guidance on how the City can enhance relationships with Indigenous peoples and governments and embed reconciliation into our core practices and decision-making."
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation and a range of Yellowknife residents have been deeply critical of the decision not to renew the position.
As part of the City's budget deliberations on Tuesday, Stacie Smith – Yellowknife's only Indigenous councillor – asked colleagues to support adding the Indigenous relations advisor to the budget, which would ensure the municipality paid for the role when federal cash ran out.
While Smith received support from councillors Cynthia Mufandaedza and Rommel Silverio, her motion failed to achieve a majority.
"What I heard from the community was people wanted this position, and our job as city councillors is to listen to what our community wants," Smith later said on Tuesday. "From what I saw, they did not listen whatsoever."
Noting only the three councillors who are members of visible minorities supported her motion, Smith said: "I think that says a lot, right there."
Smith believes having an Indigenous advisory position resulted in more Indigenous people feeling comfortable entering City Hall and speaking with staff.
"We've been told for many years to sit down and be quiet, be good little Indians and not speak," Smith said. "So to have this position here, to make people comfortable to come in? That was a good step, a giant step in the right direction."
Smith said every resident she spoke with was in support of keeping the position. Having the role was a powerful positive, she added, for Indigenous people who might want to work for the City in future.
'Integrate it into everyone's job'
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the task of the advisor was to develop the reconciliation action plan, work which is now under way. Reconciliation has been billed by City Hall as a key aspect of its operations, but Bassi-Kellett has suggested the work should not be focused in one position. Instead, she said, reconciliation must be "infused throughout the organization."
Councillor Shauna Morgan agreed the work of reconciliation shouldn't rest on one person's shoulders. "I would worry, if it continued as one position, that it almost becomes too easy to say, 'Well, that's that person's job' ... and it lets other people off the hook," Morgan said, a concern shared by Mayor Rebecca Alty.
"I would like us to continue trying to integrate it into everyone's job and everyone's awareness," Morgan added.
Stressing that one of council's stated aims is reconciliation, Councillor Julian Morse urged administration to find the money for "actual, tangible action" once Yellowknife's reconciliation plan is in place.
Bassi-Kellett said her staff are looking for support through grants and other means to continue work on reconciliation. To this end, Mayor Alty proposed adding $50,000 in "seed funding" to the budget for work on projects once the plan is drafted. That motion passed with unanimous support from council.
Morse said the $50,000 is just a start and he wants to see significant investment by the NWT government, for example in building a residential school memorial.
Outreach van costs continue
The debate on Tuesday came during a broader session designed to trim back the City of Yellowknife's budget and lower an initially proposed 8.48-percent property tax increase. Councillors had already deleted $400,000 from the budget on Monday – the sessions, which are open to the public, continue on Wednesday and Thursday from 5:30pm each evening.
Also on Tuesday, Councillor Robin Williams introduced a motion to reduce funding of Yellowknife's street outreach program.
The City has $360,000 devoted to street outreach in its 2020 budget, despite the program falling outside the municipality's mandate. Currently run by the Yellowknife Women's Society, the programs provides rides for people who are "at risk, vulnerable, or street-involved." It has had success in reducing RCMP jail cell visits and ambulance calls since its introduction in 2017.
Williams, who believes other levels of government should be funding the service, proposed cutting back municipal funding for the program to $120,000.
However, administrators expressed reservations as the measure was discussed. Grant White, the City's director of community services, said money for the program to purchase another vehicle is urgently needed as the current van is on the road around the clock. No replacement exists if that van breaks down, as recently occurred.
Williams' motion was supported by Councillor Steve Payne, yet the rest of council opted against it. “I'm just not willing to see the program discontinued because council wanted to make a political move," Morse said.
Instead, council agreed to move $50,000 from the downtown development reserve fund for the outreach van.
The full 8.48-percent tax increase is now almost certainly not a threat. On day two of budget deliberations, councillors voted to remove several existing and proposed positions – beginning by cutting a proposed executive secretary to council.
Reducing the parks budget by $100,000 means six to eight fewer summer student positions will be staffed. Councillor Morgan, who introduced the motion, said she wants to see the City plant more northern plants, perennials, and food plants that require less care. Though the motion passed, councillors Payne, Mufandaedza, and Morse opposed the idea.
A new part-time permanent booking clerk position was axed by council, saving $30,000. The role was proposed in large part to deal with a glitch in the City's new recreation software – people who buy punch passes cannot automatically scan and enter the Fieldhouse.
One position which will be created at City Hall is an asset manager. The City is recommending this position for a five-year term, with a support position starting in 2021.
Municipal enforcement's plan to purchase an $8,000 piece of equipment that scans for vehicle-mounted radar detectors was struck from the budget.
"I haven't seen a radar detector since Guns N' Roses released Appetite for Destruction, so I don't know if we really need to have this piece of equipment," Payne quipped.
The purchase of a $13,000 teaching tool for children – "Freddy the fire truck" – was also deleted from the 2020 budget. Despite Freddy's many skills, which include giving children high fives and teaching them about fire prevention, Mayor Alty said saving this money and instead bringing fire trucks to outreach events would surely have the same effect.
Councillors Morse and Mufandaedza opposed the motion, saying their experiences with fire department outreach had made their homes and lives safer.