Inclusion and reconciliation: Indigenous Peoples and sustainability in our cities

It is not every day that we take the time to think about the land we stand on or how our cities came to be. But there is always a history behind the urban spaces in which we live, work and play.

Many major Canadian cities are situated on lands long tied to Indigenous Peoples. These territories have a unique and specific meaning that spans generations – and today more Indigenous People live in urban areas across Canada than in Indigenous territories and communities.

For cities across Canada, this means reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is fundamental to sustainability.

The issue of reconciliation is, at its core, about strengthening the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the whole of Canadian society. Reconciliation receives support from all levels of government and from the vast majority of Canadians. Since taking office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made reconciliation a priority, and more than 80 percent of Canadians believe they have a role to play in the process.

For the Ville de Montréal, reconciliation is a major issue. Championed by Mayor Valérie Plante, it is a matter of moral responsibility. Home to more than 17,000 Indigenous Peoples, the city brings reconciliation into the administration and wider community. Montréal holds celebrations that honor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, in 2017, redesigned its flag to include the white pine tree, an Iroquois symbol for peace selected by a committee of Mohawk, Anishnabe and Innu representatives.

These symbols are backed by municipal systems. Dedicated staff ensure Indigenous issues are effectively integrated into the strategic planning process, particularly when it comes to housing, economic development and culture.

In the City of Victoria, home of the Lekwungen People, known also as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, reconciliation is about a return home to Loquonic territory. After more than 150 years of near invisibility, the city focuses on bringing the Lekwungen People to the conversation – and in a way that fits their culture and system of governance. Instead of setting up a classic task force for indigenous issues – as they were first inclined to do – Victoria and the Lekwungen have cultivated a familial relationship that fits the Indigenous tradition. They forgo meeting agendas and instead focus on sharing food, exchanging stories and cultivating their relationship. Any ideas or plans discussed in these gatherings are always vetted by the chief and council of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations before action is taken.

These efforts are living proof that cities look at many facets of sustainability and incorporate them into the economy, the environment and the social aspect of urban life. They are also reminders that in many contexts, the reconciliation process is crucial to building equitable and inclusive communities.

Now, as the local and regional governments of ICLEI set their sights on implementing the ICLEI Montréal Commitment, there are broader, global lessons to be drawn from these cities in Canada. Victoria and Montréal have taken both symbolic and concrete steps towards reconciliation. It is up to cities in Canada and around the world to codify indigenous knowledge and engage communities, incorporating all people regardless of race, color, religion, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation or physical or mental capabilities. By drawing on this rich diversity, cities can to build inclusive and sustainable communities equitable and for all.

This blog post os informed by the session ‘Transforming the way we live together: Reconciliation and cooperation toward our sustainable urban future” at the ICLEI World Congress 2018 in Montréal.

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