Dec. 6, 2017
By Arianne Robinson
City council voted unanimously to endorse the creation of an Indigenous Affairs Office on Tuesday. The office will cost $520,000 to fund four positions to staff the office plus an external consultant role.
Mayor John Tory committed to making sure the money required for the office will be available, despite not being in the first draft of the 2018 budget, released to the public last week. “I strongly support and will strongly support the inclusion of the money necessary to establish this office in the budget.”
Todd Ross, former special advisor on Tripartite for the Métis Nation of Ontario and member of the Aboriginal Advisory Committee, called it a “historic day” and said the unanimous vote was a recognition that an office is necessary to coordinate with the city for a plan for reconciliation with Indigenous communities. “Proclamations are important and good,” Ross said after the decision, “but without resources and individuals behind [them] who can help guide each of the city departments, the proclamations are just a piece of paper. So I think today puts a bit of bulk behind the meaning of what the city’s hoping to do with the Indigenous communities here in Toronto.”
Crystal Basi, executive director for the Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council, said “I think it was a beautiful moment for the Indigenous communities here in Toronto… I was deeply impressed and grateful for the councillors who spoke up for an Indigenous office and provided both their personal and their professional perspectives.”
However, some councillors’ questions suggested the office may not have a clear mandate. “I’d like to have a clear expectation of what the outcome expectations are,” Councillor John Campbell asked city staff. “It says there is a low level of trust between the Indigenous community and the city. It says there’s a lack of authentic relationship between the city and the Indigenous community. So in the setting up of an office, and the perception that Indigenous priorities have a low level of urgency within the city, how are these problems expected to be overcome and how will it be measured?”
Omo Akintan, acting director for the city’s Equity, Diversity and Human Rights Division, said, “The community has been making this request of the city for more than 20 years and there is the feeling that the city was not responsive to that. The creation of the office in itself will help mend the broken relationship between the city and the Indigenous community.”
“So are you saying this is a bit of a public relations exercise?” Campbell pressed.
“The intention is for this office to actually do the work that is required to implement directions that council has already provided to staff, including the calls to action that were implemented by council,” Akintan responded. “There was a statement of commitment that council adopted around our relationship with Indigenous communities, that the office will allow us to, for instance, develop an engagement strategy for divisions that wish to work with Indigenous communities – to help them figure out how to do that engagement and to do it in a way that’s respectful of the Indigenous communities right to self-determination, which council has affirmed. So the – ”
City Manager Peter Wallace interjected, “I realize that it’s unusual but I’d like to explicitly endorse that response.”
During the council meeting, Councillor Jim Hart spoke about his own background. “My family came to Toronto almost 200 years ago… when my family came here, my great-grandfather came to Toronto. He met my great-grandmother, who was an Iroquois, and they got married. I have a little bit of the sense of history from both perspectives.
“What we’re doing here today is really important. It demonstrates our commitment to building a society where everyone is considered equal, and it certainly builds a society where we acknowledge and respect our heritage and the great land we live in.”
In addition to the Indigenous Affairs Office, an item passed for training about Indigenous history and perspectives for executive management at the City of Toronto. Ross said it will be helpful for creating a basic level of understanding of the difference between western and Indigenous perspectives.
“Really, to start to learn the history of the Indigenous people here in Toronto and specific to Toronto… We have some very pressing issues here in Toronto with Indigenous communities as well, and that training I believe will go a long way towards highlighting some of the issues that Indigenous communities are facing here.”