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Widening the Circle

January 6, 2016 - 4:00pm

Strengthening the participation of Aboriginal citizens across our city has been a longstanding goal for the City of Saskatoon. The release of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report has brought renewed focus to its efforts, prompting a review of how best to strengthen Aboriginal engagement and inclusion in and around Saskatoon.

“While there is more work for us to do, we’re starting from a position of strength,” says Gilles Dorval, Director of Aboriginal Relations for the City of Saskatoon. “Since the release of the report, and City Council’s proclamation of 2015 as a “Year of Reconciliation”, we’ve been taking a fresh look at how we’re promoting Aboriginal inclusion in decision-making, planning and the wider community.”

Prior to the release of the TRC Report, the City worked with local partners to launch two community-wide consultations aimed at improving Aboriginal engagement and participation.

The Kitaskinaw Project was a collaboration with the Saskatoon Health Region, the Saskatoon Tribal Council, the United Way of Saskatoon, the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the City to influence public policy as it relates to the Aboriginal Community and the provision of programs and services by community based organizations and government. The Gathering was a joint effort by the City, Saskatoon Tribal Council and Central Urban Métis Federation Inc. to solicit feedback from Aboriginal citizens on City programs, services and planning initiatives.

The result? A renewed commitment to widen the circle of Aboriginal people as employees of the City, as engaged citizens and those involved in economic development.

“Aboriginal people are not well represented across all levels of employment we offer at the City,” explains Alaina Gillespie-Meise, Human Resources Business Partner, pointing to the 8.6% of employees who self-declare as Aboriginal. “We need to achieve a minimum of 14% if we want to build a diverse and inclusive workforce that reflects the wider community we serve. We’re getting there; we’re making strides.”

The City has developed initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining more Aboriginal citizens in its workforce, including career coaching and professional development for Aboriginal employees; partnerships with educational institutes on pre-employment programs; sessions on cultural awareness and intercultural competency for all employees; anti-racism education; and, support for Aboriginal youth and leadership development programs.

According to Gillespie-Meise, it also means reviewing employment policies and procedures to identify unintentional systemic discrimination that might create barriers for people who otherwise have the skills to do the job.

Eliminating discrimination and honouring Aboriginal ancestry in the wider community is also receiving renewed attention. Working with community partners – including Saskatoon’s school divisions – the City continues to participate in anti-racism education and public awareness campaigns to challenge cultural stereotypes and promote diversity. The City’s recent “I am the Bridge” campaign encouraged citizens to speak openly about racism in the community and offer ways to address it.

And, a recent effort to see more Aboriginal people of significance honoured in the naming of city streets, parks and public spaces has gained momentum as a way of creating a more visibly inclusive Saskatoon.

“Using the term racism, or suggesting that racism is prevalent, makes many people uncomfortable. But like all things, until you actually name it, you can’t begin to address it,” observes Lynne Lacroix, Director of Recreation and Community Development. “When you look at things through a diversity and inclusion lens, you appreciate that some processes, practices and procedures inadvertently exclude the participation of certain groups. We can do something about that.”

As Regional Planning Manager, Laura Hartney’s focus is improving Aboriginal inclusion in our local economy. She works closely with First Nations communities as they consider how best to leverage their Treaty Land Entitlement claims (i.e. the land debt owed to First Nations who did not receive all the land they were entitled to under historical treaties signed by the Crown and First Nations). The fulfillment of Treaty Land Entitlement agreements assists in spurring economic development on designated land in and around larger centres like Saskatoon. The City provides utilities and services to these properties for an annual fee.

“As in the case of any future development, we work closely with First Nations to look at land use compatibility and servicing to make sure that those properties will enhance economic opportunities for the stakeholders involved and Region as a whole.”

Hartney says these conversations are similar to ones she has with other developers – with one important difference.

“We’re not talking with the average developer here. It’s not just another land development. It’s a government to government relationship focused on fulfilling a Treaty obligation and working together to achieve an overall economic benefit for the community. When you get it right, the spin offs for First Nations and surrounding communities can be huge.”

“That’s true of everything we’re trying to do,” says Dorval of the City’s efforts to promote Aboriginal inclusion both inside and outside City Hall. “The benefits and spin offs will be huge if we can find ways to widen the circle and include more Aboriginal citizens in the life of our community.”

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