Indigenous governments and members of the public will soon get to weigh in on the City of Yellowknife’s plans for reconciliation work.
At a meeting on Monday, councillors discussed whether to release the city’s proposed reconciliation framework and action plan for public engagement.
The framework is a high-level document – to be reviewed every three to five years – that will serve as the foundation for how the city will “build respectful relationships and create a more inclusive representation” of Indigenous people.
The action plan, meanwhile, will list concrete actions the city will take to achieve those goals.
Councillors appeared supportive of the plans, which were shared with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the North Slave Métis Alliance in February.
“I feel like we’re on the right path,” said Councillor Niels Konge.
When he was first elected to council nine years ago, Konge said, the city had limited interactions with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Now the city and First Nation have signed a memorandum of understanding, developed a joint economic development strategy, and have partnered on other projects like wildfire preparedness.
“I’m definitely proud that this is going forward”, added Councillor Stacie Smith, who is Tłı̨chǫ and currently the only Indigenous member of city council.
‘We all have a role to play’
Smith said she is happy the framework states “there will be missteps and mistakes,” saying there is “no handbook” on how to move forward with reconciliation.
“There’s raw emotion that will continue coming out as more truths come to the surface,” she said, referencing the recent discovery of 215 children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site in British Columbia.
Councillor Shauna Morgan said she was heartened by the turnout for the memorial walk in Yellowknife to honour those children, as well as at a vigil for the Muslim family killed in an attack in London, Ontario, that police have called a hate crime.
“I do think we have a historic opportunity here,” Morgan said.
“We are a community made up of members of all different backgrounds and we all have a role to play in reconciliation.”
Councillor Julian Morse said he would like to see to an update of city placemaking kiosks added to the plan. While six new kiosks have been installed across the city featuring short stories from Yellowknives Dene Elders in English and Willideh, Morse noted older kiosks predominantly feature settler history.
Elsewhere in the city, he said, Yellowknives Dene history has not been communicated but settler and mining history has been “heavily prioritized,” which some people “might find difficult to reconcile.”
Morse added it has “not fallen on deaf ears” that many people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife are survivors or intergenerational survivors of residential school. He said reconciliation is a core part of the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness and the city needs to keep that in mind when making decisions in partnership with the territorial government.
Last week, limited shelter services outside Yellowknife’s Aspen Apartments were suspended as the NWT government waits on a city-issued permit to use the space. Nick Sowsun, founder of the Facebook group Concerned Yellowknife Residents for a Day Shelter Downtown, questioned why city and territorial officials were unable to come up with a solution sooner. He pointed to a disconnect between hundreds of people – including government officials – attending the march to honour residential school victims, and the continued gaps in services for those affected by that legacy.
‘We’re really proud of this work’
At Monday’s meeting, city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett noted the reconciliation plans have been years in the making and the city has already completed some goals.
“We’re really proud of this work,” she said.
In 2015, councillors adopted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and in 2019 they endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. An Indigenous relations advisor was hired at City Hall in 2018, but the position ended 18 months later as federal funding expired, despite efforts by some to advocate for long-term city funding. In 2020, 40 stop signs in English and Willideh were installed in Yellowknife, Dettah and Ndilǫ.
Future ambitions outlined in the action plan include an annual gathering on reconciliation; renaming lakes and prominent landmarks using traditional Willideh names; an arbour; a community blanket exercise; incorporating Indigenous languages in more signage, festivals and events; and developing Indigenous recruitment strategies.
The Yellowknives Dene and the city are also working together to adjust Yellowknife’s community boundary, and the city plans to push the territory to commission and install a residential schools monument in Yellowknife. In addition, there are plans to incorporate Yellowknives Dene history and culture at Yellowknife’s new visitors’ centre, and the city is working with the North Slave Métis Alliance to develop a memorandum of understanding.
Ndilǫ Chief Ernest Betsina told councillors he looks forward to this work, adding the Yellowknives Dene are working on their own plan.
“We’ve got lots of work ahead of us,” he said.