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Indigenous representation in cities is crucial to reconciliation

A teepee erected at the Ryerson quad in summer 2018

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada made 94 calls to action to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. A number of these calls relate to access and delivery of post-secondary education.

The same year, Ryerson launched a community-wide consultation about how to respond to the TRC’s calls, and in January 2018 published a community consultation report summarizing the university’s first steps in its path to reconciliation.

Prior to this commitment, Ryerson set the context for Indigenous education, diversity and social justice with the establishment of Pamela Palmater as the university’s Chair in Indigenous Governance. As a longtime lawyer and activist, Palmater uses her expertise to advocate for Indigenous rights across a range of social and political issues.

A seat at the table

There are between 45,000 and 73,000 Indigenous people living in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA) but often they aren't represented in local governments, says Pamela Palmater, a Mi'kmaw lawyer and politics and public administration professor. One way to tackle this problem, she says, is to designate seats on city councils for Indigenous people as part of the ongoing process of reconciliation in Canada, a subject she discussed in a recent article for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance.

Giving Indigenous people a seat at the table would allow them to influence the annual city budgets, what services and program the city offers and how land is used and shared.

"We have to do more than just hang a medicine wheel at the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, or celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day with a picnic in downtown Toronto," she says.

"We have to move beyond the celebratory stuff and focus on substantive change in cities like Toronto. This will require a transfer of power, wealth and land to Native Peoples, so that they can be equal partners in governance and economic prosperity at the municipal level," Palmater explains.

"That's the core of reconciliation to my mind. It's really about joint governance."

Pamela Palmater

She also notes that transferring land, property, or buildings to Indigenous people would also be a step forward. In other cities, these are places where First Nations-owned business can operate as they would on a reserve with tax exemptions and jurisdiction over land development.

Big cities like Toronto could also adopt a procurement strategy that prioritizes businesses owned by First Nations — to make sure they are " included in all of the opportunities they've historically been excluded from," she says.

"Imagine if Toronto was forward thinking, got ahead of the game; and partnered with First Nations governments and businesses," Palmater muses. "It would be leaps and bounds ahead of the other cities. That's where you want to be. You would also stand as a really good example for other cities to follow… I think that's something that would benefit everybody."


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