Yellowknife city council has voted down a proposal from Coun. Stacie Smith to save the embattled Indigenous relations adviser post.
Couns. Rommel Silverio and Cynthia Mufandaedza joined Smith in a dissenting vote at budget readings Tuesday night as council rejected her motion to turn the fixed position into an indeterminate job. Council then held another vote, proposed by Mayor Rebecca Alty, that would allocate $50,000 toward reconciliation efforts. That passed unanimously.
Maggie Mercredi currently holds the position in question, which sparked controversy as Smith, and Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina expressed disappointment that the role would not be returning next year. Federal funding for the position runs out in February.
Smith asked administration to find funding to make up the difference and keep the job in place.
Smith said she saw the position as more than a temporary role in place for 18 months, and that it contributed to having more Indigenous faces in city hall.
She added it was important for Indigenous residents to be employed, and be represented there, explaining “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.
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 emphasized that reconciliation work has been shared across city departments, including training for staff on the history and legacy of residential schools. Later on in the discussion, she referred to the complexity that would involve renaming Franklin Avenue.
She also pointed to the intercultural space-making program with Yellowknives Dene First Nation as important reconciliation work that has been done by the city.
Coun. Julian Morse, who chairs the heritage committee, said “we’re just scratching the surface” of the city’s full heritage, and noted there’s still little in the way of Indigenous representation around the city.
Explaining additional resources were a start, he didn’t foresee problems finding applications for the money, and suggested building a memorial commemorating residential schools, with support from the Northwest Territories government.
Alty expressed concern over reconciliation being siloed. For her, it was vital to “make sure all employees are living our values.”
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.
In September 2018, the city widely shared news of Mercredi’s position, which ends in February.
That news release stated the role would “provide guidance on how the city can enhance relationships with Indigenous peoples and governments, and embed reconciliation into our core practices and decision-making – from programs, to services and strategies.”
The position’s non-renewal coincided with the release of the first draft of the city’s 2020 budget, which threatened an 8.5 per cent tax increase. In recent days, councillors have set about cutting budget items in order to wrestle that increase down.
Speaking to Yellowknifer, Bassi-Kellett explained that federal money for the job had simply run out, and said the city has engaged in a number of reconciliation efforts, including finding land for the Dog Trotters Association, and returning Yellowknives Dene First Nation land.
Later that week, however, she said the decision may not be final.
When Betsina heard that the city wouldn’t be renewing the position as federal funding expired, he told Yellowknifer he was “baffled” and “disappointed.”
He emphasized the importance of Mercredi’s work in facilitating city reconciliation efforts.
“If the city’s really serious about reconciliation, they should seek more federal funding,” he said at the time.
Similarly, Smith also said at that time the advocacy work of the position “would disappear because it’s not a priority.”