Yellowknife city councillor Niels Konge apologized on Monday after comparing the challenges small businesses face during the Covid-19 pandemic to those faced by Indigenous people during the Sixties Scoop.
Konge told colleagues in a live-streamed meeting: “I’d like to apologize for my comparing the Sixties Scoop to the survival of businesses in Yellowknife. It was certainly not my intention to offend anybody. My sincere apologies on that horrible comparison.”
The councillor made the earlier statement during a debate about whether to approve the territory’s request to use a downtown building as a temporary day shelter. Several neighbouring businesses have raised objections to that proposal, saying it will have a detrimental impact on staff and customers during an already challenging time.
Konge’s comments followed an impassioned speech by Michael Fatt – an advocate who is Chipewyan Dene and a member of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation – imploring councillors to support the shelter. Fatt shared his own story of being homeless and a survivor of the Sixties Scoop.
Fatt said many people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife have been affected by trauma and are enduring rather than living life. Based on his experience, he said, people need stepping-stones and incentives to get off the street that he argues are currently missing.
“We don’t see the part where all of these things stemmed back from,” he said. “People are separated from who they are and what they are, and they’ve been downplayed and ostracized and you name it. They’ve been put in a subhuman category, to the point where they just live without nothing and they don’t care about anything.”
In response, Konge questioned whether the proposed shelter site, on the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48 Street, was appropriate. He highlighted the struggles of local businesses and said he had “received more backlash” about that location than any previous shelter proposal.
“I think that struggle that the homeless people are going through – the business community, the small business community in Yellowknife, is very much feeling that same struggle in terms of survival every day right now during Covid,” Konge said.
“They’re getting shut down by forces way beyond them, kind-of like the Sixties Scoop, right? Government said we’re going to take these Aboriginal children and we’re going to take them away. These small businesses are being shut down by government for weeks and weeks on end with very, very little support. Almost no support.”
On Saturday, Yellowknife, Dettah, and Ndilǫ entered a 10-day public health order further restricting gatherings to address the rising number of Covid-19 cases. Many businesses expressed dismay that the restrictions, which limit the number of people inside stores, would cause them to lose money.
Fatt did not address Konge’s comparison when responding to the councillor’s question. He said it was too late to consider another shelter location as winter is coming and the facility must be located downtown.
“The building itself may not be the perfect place, I can honestly say, but right now it’s the only facility available,” Fatt said. “At this particular moment, it’s the most appropriate.”
Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, however, moved to address the suggestion that the Sixties Scoop and struggles of local businesses were comparable.
“I can appreciate that some may feel that, but really, they’re very different,” she said.
Inuk advocate Gerri Sharpe, who spoke in favour of the shelter, said she was angry at both Konge and other councillors’ comments against the proposal.
“I was also part of the Sixties Scoop and I don’t appreciate being compared to businesses here in town, but I won’t go there right now,” she said.
“I’m angry that our councillors are able to sit there, laugh, and make jokes at very serious problems. You are here to serve Yellowknife, not the other way around. I’m angry. I’m angry because the colonial system is continued.”
Beginning with the Sixties Scoop and lasting into the 1980s, many Indigenous children in the US and Canada were taken from their homes and placed with largely non-Indigenous families. That resulted in the loss of family connections and cultural identity, among other negative impacts.
In 2017, the Canadian federal government agreed to a $750-million settlement with First Nations and Inuit survivors of the Sixties Scoop. As of August 2021, 17,094 claims had been approved and a further 5,052 were being assessed.