In a passionate speech this week, the City of Yellowknife’s sole Indigenous councillor highlighted the discrimination many Indigenous people across Canada face and the importance of representation.
Stacie Smith was born and raised in Yellowknife and is of Tłı̨chǫ, NunatuKavut, and English descent. Before she was elected in October 2018, the city’s last Indigenous councillor was Gail Cyr, who sat on council two decades ago.
“When I took this role as city councillor, my hope was to bring representation for my people. In a city heavily populated by Indigenous peoples, it was dumbfounding that we had not been represented at the municipal level of governance for over 20 years,” Smith told councillors in a statement on Monday night.
“My greatest fear was being viewed as the token Indian. But I have shown since then that I’m so much more. I have fought for Indigenous relations, social issues, and culture in my three years on council, and I will continue to advocate.”
When she was first elected, Smith subsequently told Cabin Radio, she struggled to find her footing as a councillor as the expectations from both sides were high.
Since then, she lists chairing the city’s community advisory board on homelessness among her accomplishments. That board now has more Indigenous members.
“I felt I did my job to make sure we had a nice, safe space for Indigenous people to start speaking up for themselves,” she said.
“You have non-Indigenous people doing to and not with. That’s something I’m really stressing to all departments with the city: to ensure that when you’re dealing with social issues, when you’re dealing with First Nations, you need to include First Nations.”
Smith is now taking over as chair of the city’s heritage committee, which will oversee projects like renaming landmarks and highlighting more Indigenous history across Yellowknife in consultation with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
In her statement on Monday, Smith said that at a time when Canadians are being told to trust the government, there is hesitation from Indigenous communities who have been lied to and disbelieved.
‘I will continue being the tide of change’
Smith told Cabin Radio she was compelled to make the statement following the recent discovery of 215 Indigenous children buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which she said has “awakened a nation from complacency.” Hundreds of people gathered in the streets of Yellowknife for a memorial walk for the residential school victims earlier this month.
“News seems to come and go,” Smith said. “I just wanted to reiterate the same thing that’s being felt by Indigenous people not only here in Yellowknife, but across Canada.”
Smith noted the legacy of residential schools has continued in the reservation system, child and family services, and homelessness.
“The genocide of my people continues in front of our eyes. It just has a different name,” she said. “But the intention is the same: to alienate, to shame, and to strip us of our dignity.”
Smith said while Indigenous people are often told to be resilient, that can be exhausting, but she draws strength from knowing she is not alone and can make a difference for her sons.
“I will continue being the tide of change. I will continue raising those uncomfortable conversations until those conversations no longer become uncomfortable,” she said.
“For some, 215 will be a number that you will slowly forget as you slide back into your societal-based complacency. But for many, this will impact the way in which you view Canada, our government, and the church. And you will want change, you will want answers, and you will join the fight we’ve been fighting since the beginning.”
The city soon plans to release its draft reconciliation plan for public consultation, which includes ambitions to develop Indigenous recruitment strategies. Smith said she would like to see more Indigenous people working at City Hall and city facilities.
‘Impossible is possible’
Smith is not the only northern politician to have spoken out against Indigenous discrimination this week. Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq gave a farewell speech in the House of Commons where she described the injustice Indigenous people face, admonished the federal government’s inaction on providing Inuit basic human rights, and spoke of her personal experience being racially profiled in Parliament.
“I will always fight for human rights of Indigenous peoples in Nunavut and across the country. I believe that we are living through a shift in this country where Canadians are starting to wake up to the reality,” she said.
“I have shown the nation and the world that impossible is possible, that hope can grow where it’s purposely put out and that, if we work together and use our voices, we can influence real change.”