As the City of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene First Nation signed a fresh mutual agreement Thursday, leaders faced questions over a scrapped Indigenous relations post at city hall.
The Memoranda of Understanding that Mayor Rebecca Alty, Chief Edward Sangris and Chief Ernest Betsina signed on Thursday morning commits to regular meetings between city and Yellowknives leaders and senior staff, especially in regards to reconciliation. It is an updated version from the one previously signed in 2002.
The signing was held two days after city council quashed a proposal from Coun. Stacie Smith to save the Indigenous relations post, which is funded through federal money that expires in February.
Before Betsina was informed that council scrapped the position during a press scrum at the signing, he told reporters he hoped the city’s decision wasn’t final. (Maggie Mercredi, who holds the position, worked on Thursday’s signing, he added later.)
“It’s looks like there’s been a decision made already. So we’ll just go forward from that,” he said, following comments last week in which he said the city’s decision to cut the position left him ”baffled.”
Since the launch of the 18-month position in September 2018, Betsina said he’d seen improvement in YKDFN’s relationship with the city. For him, it was helpful to have a “go-to person” at city hall to facilitate the relationship.
“I believe it was beneficial when she was there,” he said, explaining she worked on the memorandum of understanding, the boundary between YKDFN and the city, and reconciliation efforts. “We’ll see what happens from here I guess.”
Responding to the same question, Mayor Alty reiterated previous comments that reconciliation ought to be citywide work, and not limited to a single position.
“We received federal funding to do a reconciliation plan. With that funding we were able to hire a termed position and so the position was responsible for developing the plan,” she said, explaining once that is developed, it will be implemented through the work of all city business.
“We do take reconciliation serious,” she said. “We’ll be continuing once the plan comes forward, implementing it, then continuing are relationship with YKDFN.”
Chief Sangris said reconciliation will move forward, with or without the position.
While the position of liaison was important to both communities, he said, “reconciliation will take place in due time.”
Council quashes proposal, commits $50,000 more to reconciliation effort
Council then held another vote, proposed by Alty and passed unanimously, that allocated $50,000 toward reconciliation efforts.
Before being voted down, Smith argued that representation of Indigenous staff in City Hall was currently lacking and that “sometimes going to non-Indigenous (staff) is a little difficult.
“I haven’t heard from one person who said this position should leave,” she added later during the discussion.
Also during discussion, Senior Administrative Officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett said the work expected of the position to date was to co-ordinate a reconciliation action plan, which is currently in development.
She stressed that reconciliation work has been shared across city departments — a point that Alty echoed as she argued to “make sure all employees are living our values” and to not silo these reconciliation efforts.
Speaking to Yellowknifer after the vote, Smith said she was “shocked.
“The people who feel that they were minorities (Couns. Silverio and Mufandaedza) were the ones that voted for it. We had a lot of support from the community, so now it’s up to the community to talk to city councillors and tell them what they want,” she said.
Agreement ‘a step in the right direction’
Sangris described the agreement the leaders signed Thursday as a step in the right direction, as leaders pointed to co-operation on infrastructure and economic development as key areas moving forward.
Alty added the agreement gives more structure to the intergovernmental relationship. She also noted it will assist in following-up on items that arise from meetings between the two.
Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina pointed to the fresh start associated with the First Nation’s newly elected council members, noting seven out of 10 are women and five are new to their positions.
“I see these MOUs if anything as going to strengthen the city and YKDFN,” he said, adding that joint projects like infrastructure are areas where the two can collaborate.
“Whatever’s good for YKDFN is good for our city. That’s what we’re hoping,” he said.