Editorial: Indigenous relations position deserves more than one term

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The issue: Indigenous relations adviser

We say: Why can’t other positions be cut?

Yellowknife is located on Chief Drygeese Territory, traditional home of the Yellowknives Dene. Those are the words heard from public officials at the start of most public events in Yellowknife.

But words without actions are empty and a recent development at city hall is sending confusing messages to the Yellowknives Dene and the North Slave Metis, who also call this area their traditional home.

The city will not extend an 18-month Indigenous relations adviser term position, citing a lack of funds. When the federally funded position was announced in 2018, the city stated it would consider “options to ensure sustainability” for the position beyond March 2020.

As reported in Wednesday’s Yellowknifer (“Ndilo chief slams cut of Indigenous relations job“), that hasn’t worked out and the YKDFN is hoping the city will change its mind.

“As chief, how do I explain to my members that the city says it’s serious about this participation in reconciliation and yet they eliminate this position?” asked Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN). “What does that say? Is it a priority or not? I’m really baffled about what the city’s doing right now.”

And so is Yellowknifer. Indigenous relations is a common position in many communities across Canada. And if any city is a prime candidate for having a liaison between the colonial political structure and the Indigenous people whose land it inhabits, it is Yellowknife.

Indigenous Relations Adviser Maggie Mercredi’s 18-month federally funded term is ending at city hall in March. It’s a position that needs to be made permanent so work between the city and the traditional inhabitants of the area doesn’t get moved to the back burner.
NNSL file photo

The position at city hall was held by Denesoline member Maggie Mercredi, owner of Ravenessence Consulting.

Betsina described Mercredi as playing “a key role” facilitating work between YKDFN and the city. He is also concerned city staff is busy with other work and may not be able to absorb Mercredi’s responsibilities when the term position ends.

City SAO Sheila Bassi-Kellett told Cabin Radio the city is currently grappling with a proposed 8.5-per-cent tax increase and will have trouble paying for the position on its own.

The city should find the money to make the position of Indigenous relations adviser permanent, as it is just as important as any other position in the administrative ranks.

It’s not as if the city has been shy about increasing the size of its staff, which has ballooned by nearly 40 positions to nearly 240 jobs over the past 10 years — a 16 per cent increase. This as the city’s population has barely changed during the same period.

Now council is caught between a political rock and a hard place. It needs to make cuts to the proposed budget — since 2015 annual tax increases have been zero or 1.4 per cent — or damage its relationship with the Yellowknives Dene.

The city has been working towards its claim of supporting reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Council adopted the Calls to Action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Motion and adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP).

The city also flies the YKDFN and North Slave Metis Alliance flags at city hall, along with the Canadian, NWT and city flags

There is a Memorandum of Understanding with the YKDFN on relationships and services.

There are regular council to council meetings with the YKDFN and the city has just collaborated with YKDFN on adjusting the geographic boundaries between the two communities.

The city also supports the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s healing camp and all city staff participate in training on the history and legacy of residential schools and colonization.

Earlier this year, city council committed to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan — a key process that will guide relations between the city and Indigenous peoples.

And Indigenous Relations Adviser Maggie Mercredi was a key player in that process.

As Betsina told Yellowknifer, if the adviser position is eliminated, “it almost seems that we’re going backwards, instead of forwards on reconciliation.”

The city needs to find the money in the current budget process to make the key position of Indigenous relations adviser a permanent position.

The first place to look is at its own staffing levels in other departments.

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