The long wait for an Aboriginal office at city hall

9:55 a.m. May 12, 2017 Members of Toronto City Council Aboriginal Advisory Committee at city hall.

May 13, 2017

After waiting a year for a report requested from the mayor’s executive committee on the creation of an Aboriginal office, a very short presentation finally came to the Aboriginal Advisory Committee on Friday. Members were upset to find no plan of action included but rather an outline of more procedural steps to be taken.

“[We’ve] heard your request… Something of this magnitude takes a great deal of thought and planning,” said Lindsay Kretschmer, who just recently took on the role of Aboriginal affairs consultant in the city’s Equity, Diversity & Human Rights division.

Committee members were frustrated in response. “We’ve been asking for this for 17 years,” Kenn Richard, executive director of Native Child and Family Services, said during the meeting.

Crystal Basi, executive director of Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council, was astounded as she questioned the amount of work completed in the year. “I don’t understand how so little information could be gathered in 365 days when it took me 30 minutes to [find the same amount of research],” Basi said.

Basi went as far as to ask if the city is really interested in an office. “The committee and the wider community has said we need an office, we want an office, but my question to the city is do you want an Indigenous office here? It’s a real serious deep question that needs to be reflected upon,” Basi said.

A mere lack of political mobilization on the part of councillors could also be an issue. Co-chair of the Aboriginal Advisory Committee Councillor Mike Layton conceded that could be a factor, but said he’s hoping to see change with the current administration. “We need to look at what steps are we willing to take towards the path of reconciliation, and if we’re not prepared to make a basic step like this, to have a solid grounding for coordinating our efforts, then what are we doing?”

But even knowing that this is ultimately city council’s decision, committee members circled back to Mayor John Tory’s position on the office. “I sat with the mayor on behalf of this committee on his return from his visit up north where he appeared to have an epiphany on the relationship, and he wanted to know exactly what he needed to do behaviourally – action,” Richard, of Native Child and Family Services, told the committee. “I said the longstanding request of this [advisory group] has been that office, and he said he would give that serious consideration, and I’m not sure this represents the consideration that was implied in his commentary.”

Tory has not provided outright support for establishing an Aboriginal affairs office. In response to questions from Signal Toronto about whether he would support an office, the mayor’s spokesperson Don Peat sent the following statement: “Toronto is home to tens of thousands of Indigenous Canadians and Mayor Tory acknowledges that they have no ‘focal point’ for accessing municipal services. The City has appointed an individual whose job it will be to liaise between indigenous communities and various city departments. This new position is one of the ways that the City is adopting the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another measure will be the raising of the flags of local indigenous communities at City Hall next month.”

The liaison the mayor’s office mentioned is Kretschmer, who took up the post of Aboriginal affairs consultant almost two months ago. However Layton says this role does not go far enough, saying the committee is asking for “a resourced office that has the capacity to influence staff decision in every department.”

The idea is that a full-time designated staff person (different from a consultant) in an Aboriginal office would have a direct line to senior city staff who work with different divisions. In the countdown to the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, the celebrations have been described as a kind of celebration of colonization, as reported by CBC’s Deana Sumanac-Johnson. At Toronto city hall the message from Indigenous people who come to advocate at city hall has been clear. They want an office. They don’t want to be associated with federal grant money for celebrations linked with Canada’s birthday, as was the case with the proposed “Walk for Reconciliation,” which the committee has opposed.

“It’s important to recognize that this is a different relationship than with any other groups. It’s the Aboriginal community that has distinction under various levels of federal legislation and it needs to be recognized with something rather distinct,” Layton said.

When asked when he wanted the office in place, Layton’s answer: “Yesterday.”