Stacie Smith raised her hand in opposition to the approval of the City of Yellowknife’s budget for 2020. Hers was the lone dissenting vote as council approved a 1.63-percent property tax increase.
Despite “great efforts made” on the budget, Smith said, she stood by her previous statements about the City’s impending removal of an Indigenous relations advisor position at City Hall.
The position, introduced in 2018, is currently funded by the federal government. That funding expires in February 2020.
During budget deliberations, Smith made an attempt to turn the Indigenous relations position into a municipally funded, permanent post. The motion failed to pass, with only councillors Cynthia Mufandaedza and Rommel Silverio in support.
“We’re making knowledge of reconciliation, but we’re not actually making the efforts to go forward with it,” said Smith following Monday’s vote. “And so it’s a falsehood as to what we’re doing.
In depth: Cabin Radio’s 2020 budget coverage
“We’ve got the paperwork there, but… we’re not ‘working with,’ we’re ‘doing to.'”
Smith echoed the words of resident and activist Arlene Hache, who presented her views on the City’s reconciliation efforts to council earlier on Monday.
Hache said the City had done a great job moving to what she called the “awareness state,” citing work done on a reconciliation action plan, the inclusion of reconciliation in its strategic plan, and acknowledging traditional land when opening meetings.
“However, it’s not enough,” said Hache, “and if you don’t correct paths, you’ll still be in the state of awareness for the next 30 years.”
Hache said she was “incredibly disappointed” the Indigenous relations advisor position would not be renewed, despite what she termed “clear indications” from Smith and Chief of Ndilo Ernest Betsina about the impact on relationship-building of losing the position.
Hache said not involving Betsina in the decision, and “negating” his concern about it, amounted to gaslighting.
Arlene Hache sets out her case for keeping a position related to reconciliation at City Hall. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Smith said she saw the value in the position, which has been staffed by Maggie Mercredi since its inception. The councillor described seeing Indigenous people being more comfortable entering City Hall and speaking to other members of staff.
During the December 5 signing of a renewed memorandum of understanding between the City and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, the chiefs of Ndilo and Dettah agreed the position had been important for the relationship between the two governments.
‘Veil in front of people’s eyes’
City administrator Sheila Bassi-Kellett said one of the advisor’s key roles was to draft the City’s reconciliation action plan. Following the end of Mercredi’s contract, Bassi-Kellett said, the work of reconciliation would be “infused throughout the organization.”
Hache said reconciliation should be guided by Indigenous people from the community, otherwise the work would remain superficial.
“You can’t rely on people with a colonial mindset. And there’s nobody more colonial than governments, whether it’s municipal or GNWT. Watch our history, our history has been very colonial,” she said.
The City has separately budgeted $50,000 for projects related to reconciliation in the coming year. Hache suggested putting that toward funding the advisor’s position.
“Find the rest,” she said. “You can have as many projects as you want but then you’re ‘doing to’ Indigenous people, you’re not ‘doing with’ … if we don’t transform the system, racism will continue to flourish in Yellowknife.”
Without the position, Smith said, reconciliation would be carried out by non-Indigenous people “working on what they think an Indigenous person needs or wants.”
Smith said she would continue to advocate for the hiring of Indigenous people at the municipality and bring awareness to issues like homelessness, which disproportionately affects Indigenous people in the NWT.
“I think a lot of times there’s that veil in front of people’s eyes and they see only what they want to see,” she said. “My job is to kind-of remove that veil and tell them this is how it actually is for us.”
Sometimes, Smith added, she feels “on the outside looking in” despite her position on council.
“I’m supposed to be part of a team. And that’s something that I think the City needs to build on. It also reflects in terms of reconciliation – what that means when your only Indigenous councillor is kind-of still looking on the outside,” she said.
Councillor Niels Konge also spoke prior to his vote in favour of the budget.
Konge expressed concern about an increase in wages and salaries outstripping the 1.63-percent property tax increase.
“We can get away with it, but it will come to cost us at some point,” he said. “I am going to support it at this time, and next year I think the discussions are going to be a little bit harder.”