From sunrise to sunset their feet padded along the concrete, back and forth, quietly, in the heart of the city. A neat stack of wood, an axe and a chopping log were at their disposal, lined beside a circular metal fire pit with spruce boughs fanned around it like flower petals. Pouches of tobacco were laid open, ready to be offered to the fire.

“We spent all day tending the sacred fire, from 7 in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. Then they finished with a prayer for reconciliation,” says Scott Yuill, one of the firekeepers at Somba K’e Park on Sept. 30, the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. Somba K’e, in the Tlicho language, means Yellowknife, or “where the money is,” but until the late ‘90s the park bore the name of a French missionary priest now known to have been a pedophile. The park’s name change is just one example of how the truth, and acts of reconciliation, can change the face of a city.

Under grey skies, Yuill says citizens from all walks of life solemnly made their way to the park beside city hall to show respect for survivors and the thousands of children buried in unmarked graves at federally funded, church-run residential schools, which, for 150 years, mercilessly segregated Indigenous children from their families and subjected them to cruelty and abuse. The express goal was to eradicate Indigenous peoples’ distinct nations and cultures, “…to get rid of the Indian problem,” as Duncan Scott, a federal architect of the system, famously decried.

“Thought of my buddies and others who never made it home,” Paul Andrew, a survivor of one of the NWT’s most notorious residential schools, wrote on social media after he fed the fire with tobacco – a Dene ceremony intended to connect through prayer to ancestors and give thanks to the land, air, water and all things. Andrew, originally from Tulita, is a retired CBC broadcaster who has publicly shared how the abuses he suffered at residential school impact his life. All survivors and children of survivors (intergenerational survivors) are impacted by individual and collective traumas from colonization, racism, and the residential school legacies, and those impacts can include struggles with addictions, mental health issues, and medical conditions.

Of the 312 known people experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife, 91.5 per cent are Indigenous and 93 per cent migrated to the city – mainly from other NWT communities, but also from Nunavut and Western Canada, according to the 2021 Yellowknife Point-in-Time Homeless Count, a one-day survey conducted April 18 for the City of Yellowknife. Strikingly, at least 81 per cent have either attended residential schools or had one or more of their parents attend one.

A downtown solution is ‘what reconciliation looks like’

Providing special care for this population at a new Temporary Day Shelter, where people can access the bare necessities to survive – food, heat, bathrooms – as well as medical care and social service supports, has been hotly contested in recent weeks by some downtown businesses and city councillors. COVID-19 restrictions have limited the space available at the downtown Sobering Centre and Day Shelter. Without an additional facility, street-involved people have no welcoming place to escape the looming winter cold.

An attempt by the Department of Health and Social Services to obtain a municipal permit to use the building at the corner of Franklin Avenue and 48th Street, the old Legion, was voted down 4-3 by city council last week; even though changes are afoot to the city’s Zoning By-law to remove the discretionary oversight of council for special care facilities in the downtown.

“We’re recommending that these types of care facilities become permitted use in the downtown core, meaning the downtown’s zone only, for a couple reasons,” Rob Lok, the city’s planning and lands manager, told an open house for the Draft Zoning By-law on Sept. 23. “It is where the service providers are located, and it’s where the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness directs us.”

Lok says this inclusivity aligns with city council’s visions and goals, “and most importantly, it’s what reconciliation looks like.”

“We can’t keep talking about relocating a problem elsewhere, we have to be accepting of that problem, or those concerns in our neighbourhood. And we have to be willing to let it unfold where the service providers are.”

Those service providers include overnight shelters like the Salvation Army, which do not allow clients to remain during the day. Jenna Scarfe, the Territorial Director of Mental Health and Community Wellness, says providing shelter in the downtown is a matter of life or death.

“If they have to go too far, they’re not going to make it. There’s a potential that people could freeze,” Scarfe says.

Starting new patterns: conversation, respect, and meaningful acts

Yuill, who owns Harleys Hardrock Saloon on 48 Street, supported the territorial government’s proposed new shelter – about a block away from his business – as a temporary measure until a more comprehensive wellness facility is built. Yuill discovered at age 18 that his birth mother in Nova Scotia is Mi’kmaq. As an executive member of the Yellowknife Crazy Indian Brotherhood, he says he’s excited and revitalized by the giving and caring that’s shared during their Feed the People events, which include breakfasts at Somba K’e Park. He urges Yellowknifers to drop their hostility toward people on the streets.

“It’s time to sit down and talk with them and understand them,” he says. “Maybe if we stop going in with hostility and start going in with love and peace in our hearts, maybe everybody will start following along and start a pattern, people will start feeding off of it.”

Emma Junker, an office worker in the YK Centre who welcomes a new temporary shelter near her, has adopted that approach. “I just cannot stress enough that we are arguing over people, they’re human beings and respect begets respect and why would they respect areas when those areas have been so vocal that they’re not wanted and not welcomed,” Junker says.

Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green says that as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to grow in Yellowknife and surrounding communities, the need for a temporary shelter becomes even more urgent. The minister has not ruled out the possibility that the territorial government will invoke emergency measures, as was done last year, to commandeer access to a shelter location.

“I’m beyond disappointed that Yellowknife City Council has voted down two temporary day shelters in the past year,” Green says. “I too wish for a vibrant downtown, it is the heartbeat of the city, but without meaningful acts of reconciliation and compassion for Indigenous northerners who face incredible challenges, this will never be realized.”