April 26, 2017
A decision involving a federally-funded reconciliation program for First Nations and non-First Nations people is being considered in the municipal realm this month, at Toronto City Hall. An organization called Reconciliation Canada (originally from Vancouver) has pitched the city an idea that would facilitate a massive multicultural “walk for reconciliation” in Toronto in September followed by a big main-stage event.
The city’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee was originally in support of the walk when it was first pitched back in November 2016. It was when the City’s Economic Development department offered $500,000 from from a special events reserve fund that support started to wane. “To all of the sudden see half a million bucks on on the table – for someone who has been struggling for many years, in terms of engaging the city on these kinds of conversations, it’s just a bit of a shock,” Kenn Richard, of Native Child and Family Service, told Signal Toronto after the February advisory meeting.
In the months following, that feeling grew to clear disapproval from other members at an informal committee meeting held at city hall earlier this month. Andrea Chrisjohn from Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre said she came to say to the organizers in person her organization does not support the program, saying too much of the process has been “misstepped.”
Read more about Reconciliation Canada at Toronto City Hall
Since 2012, Reconciliation Canada has attempted programs that encourage dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “The belief relationships are broken… that’s where the truth and reconciliation came out of, and we need to find a way to restore those relationships if we’re ever going to move forward. Not just for Indigenous people, but if Canada’s ever going to achieve its true potential,” Karen Joseph, CEO of Reconciliation Canada, said to the informal Aboriginal Advisory Committee at city hall.
“We come here [today] with open hearts and open minds… Our vision is to build vibrant, resilient and sustainable communities, where all our children can achieve their optimum potential and shared prosperity.”
According to Joseph, the 2013 Vancouver walk also had the involvement of some of the in city’s institutions. “The day of the walk we asked [the churches] to suspend their services that day and use the Walk for Reconciliation as an opportunity to engage… as their act of reconciliation and we had overwhelming response for that,” Joseph said, adding they had a number of participating institutions that helped to get out hundreds of “walk teams,” including universities, community groups, government, businesses, and unions. “It’s going to take all of us to move [the Toronto program] forward in a big way.”
Despite the good intentions of organizers, advisory members raised concerns about what the real impact will be in Toronto. “I work with homeless native men,” said Steve Teekens from Na-Me-Res. “I’ve been inundated with different groups, some of them church, that want to come in and cook in our kitchen and serve a meal. They say they want to do their part in reconciliation. But at the end of that meal being cooked and being served, I can’t say reconciliation has happened. Our men are still homeless. Those men get to go home and feel good about themselves and think they did their part, but really at the end of the day, nothing has changed. So I sort of take a hard view of reconciliation. I think a walk will probably start a discussion on it, but I think more than a walk needs to take place.”
City council will decide whether to grant the half-million-dollar funding at this week’s council meeting, after previously deferring the item in order to give local organizations more time to work out the idea. “Part of [the city’s] work was to encourage Reconciliation Canada to work with local Indigenous groups to ensure that [there is] a broad consensus for the activity,” Mike Williams, general manager for Economic Development & Culture department, said at the informal meeting.
Similar versions of the walk event have taken place in cities across Canada. In Vancouver in 2013 The Canadian Press reported on CBC that the event “drew a huge crowd that some estimates put [at] more than 10,000”. The City of Vancouver is planning another walk for this year, according to a report in Metro News by Trish Kelly,
If council endorses the grant, the organization plans to set up a working group of 4-12 people that will include non-Aboriginal people, including newcomers to Canada, multicultural people, and corporate representatives. This group would work with Reconciliation Canada to determine the nature of the program and potential alternatives to a walk, such as a forum.
Co-chair of the Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee Frances Sanderson said she wants to see decision-making power in the hands of Indigenous people. “It’s up to the other side to reconcile with us. We’ve been sitting waiting for hundreds of years… So now they’re going to give their heads a shake and they’re going to come to us. But that doesn’t mean that they get the opportunity to be the be-all, end-all bottom line telling us again what there is that we need to do. This has to come from our committee.”
The other co-chair, Mike Layton, told Signal Toronto after the meeting, “There is significant concern, I think, amongst the optic of celebrating, in any way, Canada 150 in relation to the Aboriginal community, and I totally appreciate that we’re celebrating colonialism,” Layton said. “It’s a struggle for some, and it’s a struggle for me… at the same time it’s an opportunity to start a dialogue.” He said the co-chairs will be reaching out to all the members of the committee to get their advice to bring to Toronto City Council. “You really do need the support of the organizations around the table in order to have a successful event, and if that requires dialogue and perhaps waiting a year to start that effort, maybe that’s a useful use of our time.”
At the meeting, Joseph said New Credit First Nation Chief Stacey Laforme is supportive of the work they do and they have met with Elder Josephine Mandamin, who has agreed to work with Reconciliation Canada. The group also has a resolution from the national Assembly of First Nations that supports the work they do.
Joseph from Reconciliation Canada said money from the city would go toward city services that would have previously been in-kind, such as paying for police officers and engineers to support the event, but not the cost of organizing, which would be paid for by the federal Canada 150 grant money. Reconciliation Canada also receives support from the Anglican Church of Canada, Suncor Energy Foundation, the Vancouver Foundation and others.
Chief Robert Joseph, a residential school survivor and founder of Reconciliation Canada, said he likes the idea of a walk. “Walking is easy… most Canadians want to do something right away to engage, to say, ‘I’m in’,” Chief Joseph said during the committee meeting. “With respect to reconciliation being an Aboriginal and a Canadian issue: If we do it a lot it means we’re only negotiating with government, and my biggest fear is that… we’ll reach general agreement and then go back to hating each other. Go back to the prejudice. Go back to the ignorance. And go back to the current kinds of situations where people don’t like each other.”