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Ndilo chief 'baffled' by City's cut Indigenous relations position

Chief Ernest Betsina of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, pictured on Mar. 16, 2018, says he was "baffled" by the City's decision not to renew the Indigenous relations advisor post. Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo

Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina says he is "baffled" by news that the City of Yellowknife won't be renewing its Indigenous relations post, a position officials announced with fanfare in September 2018.

The position, held by Denesoline member Maggie Mercredi, expires in February, when federal money supporting the 18-month position runs out, Senior Administrative Officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett confirmed earlier reporting yesterday.

It's a development that's left Betsina "disappointed" as the city develops its reconciliation action plan with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN).

Betsina said the city should consider seeking more money from Ottawa, or re-allocate funds from somewhere else.

"If the city's really serious about reconciliation, they should seek more federal funding," he said.

Chief Ernest Betsina of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, pictured on March 16, 2018, says he was "baffled" by the City's decision not to renew the Indigenous relations advisor post.
Sidney Cohen/NNSL photo

Betsina described Mercredi's position as playing "a key role" facilitating work between YKDFN and the city. He cited two recent community meetings, one in Ndilo and one in Dettah, which he described as a good start.

"We're just starting to consult with the City of Yellowknife and they're coming to our community," said Betsina.

"This can't stop. This needs to continue. 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? What does that say? Is it a priority or not? I'm really baffled about what the city's doing right now."

He is also concerned city staff are already busy with other work and may not be able to fully account for Mercredi's responsibilities. Without the position, Betsina wants the city to explain how reconciliation will take place, who will do it, and on what timeline.

"If this position is eliminated, it almost seems that we're going backwards, instead of forwards on reconciliation," said Betsina. "Somebody's got to do it."

In a September 2018 news release announcing Mercredi for the position, the city 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."

Bassi-Kellett said the money simply isn't there for the position, now that the federal funding allotted to the city to create the position has expired. Meanwhile, the City is also facing an 8.5 per cent tax increase if it doesn't cut costs.

"I completely respect where Chief Betsina is coming from on this. I think he knows what a good partner the city has been with YKDFN and the number of initiatives we've done," said Bassi-Kellett. "We'll endeavour to be a strong collaborative partner going forward."

‘Say the stuff … people may not want to hear'

Maggie Mercredi, the city's first Indigenous Relations Advisor, in her office on the main floor of city hall. Feb. 2019
Brett McGarry/NNSL Photo

Coun. Stacie Smith said she knew federal funding would be a question moving forward with the position but she is hopeful the city can find funding for the position, if not for six months, then a year.

"The work that Maggie is doing is essential to reconciliation," Smith said, explaining there are few Indigenous staff at City Hall and Mercredi's work is an encouraging step in the right direction.

She agreed the impending loss of the position is discouraging, potentially making past efforts "in vain."

"It's an effort made by the city but I see it slowly disappearing, just
like many other efforts," she said. "If there's not somebody specifically in that role to do that job, it's going to get lost within the fold."

Smith said the job ultimately boils down to having someone at the municipal level "who's actively advocating on behalf of First Nations."

Without that, she said that "would disappear because it's not a priority." If residents are concerned, she encouraged them to contact council.

"That's one of the issues with reconciliation," said Smith. "(It's) feeling safe enough to say the stuff that people may not want to hear."