Aboriginal Affairs Committee pushes for change to city bureaucracy in fight for self-determination

Feb. 16, 2018

By Arianne Robinson

Questions of how Indigenous self-determination can really exist within the city’s bureaucracy were front and centre at the Aboriginal Affairs Committee this week.

At their first meeting since city council approved funding for an Indigenous Affairs Office (not yet an actual physical office, but there will be positions in the city manager’s office) members talked through some of the structural problems related to setting up a permanent Indigenous Affairs department within the City of Toronto.

The idea for a stand-alone Indigenous department within the City of Toronto has been a long-standing request from the committee, and has brought with it much passion during a time when reconciliation – not to mention other Indigenous-rights issues within the judicial system – is front page news lately.

Now an Indigenous Affairs Office is being created at the city, but those who’ve been at the helm of advocating for it will not officially be involved in the hiring of the department’s manager – a big job that involves Indigenous Cultural Competency Training of city politicians and the city’s 34,000 civil service.

While members are certainly happy about city council’s decision this week to support an Indigenous Affairs Office, they are also concerned about the lack of institutional power advisory committee members have in establishing the office, which is  a result of the administrative constraints of the city’s bureaucratic norms.

Andrea Chrisjohn, board member of Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre, made it clear at the meeting she wants people from the Aboriginal Advisory Committee to be on the hiring committee for the staff of the Indigenous Affairs Office.

“This is our city, and the hiring process for our own people, who are from this particular region, that understand really clearly about our core cause, is really important,” Chrisjohn said.

Co-chair of the committee Councillor Mike Layton explained the rules. “The city has very strict HR policies regarding the hiring of any staff and it doesn’t necessarily have the ability or power to circumvent that, but I know that city staff are concerned with ensuring that those hiring practices can recognize the relationships and experience that people will bring to these positions. I know that they recognize that, but the city does have a protocol to follow in our hiring that I believe is legislated onto us by the province.”

In response to Layton, Tanya Senk, principal at the Urban Indigenous Education Centre of the TDSB, put government institutional hiring practices into the context of history.

“Speaking further around decolonization, [we need to look] at the barriers that are in place with regard to hiring practices and HR so we can begin to dismantle those barriers that continue to marginalize Indigenous peoples in the city of Toronto. It really needs to be done in keeping with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s calls to action, as well as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I think that it’s imperative that the city begin that process, and begin immediately, because you’re also looking at a legacy and a history of legislation that has marginalized and silenced Indigenous people.”

Kenn Richard, executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, agreed with Senk after the meeting.

“Listen, I’m one who understands the constraints of unionization and the need for a fair and equitable process,” Richard said.

“I’m not saying the city’s wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. Because until this hiring process is transparent and actually gets the results that we want it to, ie. the best candidates, I think it’s open to scrutiny. But it’s also open to scrutiny based on certain principles. If you’re talking about a self-determined community, how can you exclude it from a hiring process because you have a bureaucratic dictate that says it can’t? These are the contradictions and the challenges in working this stuff through.”

Asked how he thinks those contradictions can be reconciled, Richard explains how the decision-making process really works. “What will happen is there will be, and dare I say this, I almost have to whisper, there’ll be a formal process and an informal process. I imagine I will have, in some funny little way, a chance to talk to a little bird about what’s going to happen, and we solve problems that way. As in every part of this world, and every dynamic at play in this work world, there are these different avenues to the same place, and so, I intend to use them.”  

Signal Toronto made numerous requests to city staff about the exact number of permanent positions for the new Indigenous Affairs Office. As of the time of publication, city finance staff confirmed city council approved three permanent positions for the Indigenous Affairs Office in the 2018 budget, while other city staff said there would be five roles within the office with a sixth temporary management consultant role.

In addition to issues of transparency around the permanence of the staff positions, there is also the challenge of finding someone for the new management role, something that Donald Corbiere, board member of Nishnawbe Homes, says it is no easy task.

“Everyone’s trying to do work with the Indigenous communities, with work led by the Indigenous communities,” Corbiere said after the meeting, “but that’s creating a lot of issues right now because there’s only a certain pool of resources we can pull from, and so if all these organizations are just pulling from the same people there’s going to be fatigue and there’s going to be burnout.”

Other members are mindful that whoever is hired needs to be ready to face some big challenges within the city’s bureaucratic framework.

“It’s not always going to be easy,” says Todd Ross, representing the Métis Nation of Ontario, on the committee. “There’s going to be some pushback from some departments… I think with the backing from the city manager, the director of the Indigenous Affairs Office is going to have to set the tone. There will have to be a push from the centre that this is the expectation of people when working with the Indigenous Affairs Office.”

Richard says he wants to see someone who is going to take the role seriously, so action that results from the newly established role is meaningful.

“You’re going to need, in this position, a very thick skin, and an absolute focus because it will be easy to be created into a sideshow. If [the position] doesn’t have strong leadership, the potential for it to be just another show is very much there. We’ve seen large institutions in the past indigenize – and it’s bringing an elder in to open a meeting or getting a smudge room – okay, those are all good things, but they’re not structural and they’re not real change. They’re trappings of change, the illusion of change. I think you can tell by the dynamics at this table [at the committee] that people are not going to see this in a superficial way, that accountability will be strong. You know, it will be quite animated. I look forward to being part of it.”