Sewell on City Hall: The benefits of twinning extend to the GTA’s First Nations communities


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Kim Wheatley of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation at a Markham event with Eabametoong First Nation

Image: City of Markham

With the city budget for 2017 now approved (almost $11 billion), and with cuts to some programs dealing with the most vulnerable members of our community, I have been cogitating about big city problems and how insoluble they seem: homelessness, the lack of affordable housing, the shortage of good child care and the people caught up in these problems.

Some days it all feels hopeless, the problems too immense. We don’t have the political leadership nor the revenue, and the community doesn’t want to support solutions anyway.

But then, as Leonard Cohen says, there’s a crack where the light gets in, and unexpectedly one spies a new approach that seems promising even if it’s a bit tangential and a bit on the edge of these big issues.

The new idea comes from the City of Markham, and it is about aboriginals, a group of people who often have been caught up in homelessness, the lack of affordable housing and poverty in large urban centres like Toronto. 

Markham has dragged out the old “twin cities” chestnut and has twinned with a First Nations community on Hudson’s Bay. How simple is that!

Most Canadians agree we need to treat First Nations people more equitably, that we need truth and reconciliation. Although we hardly know where to begin in that process, just as we hardly know where to begin with homelessness and the other big problems.

Twinning can change that. Visits back and forth with a community in Ontario could teach us so much, and we could begin to reconcile ourselves to the truth about how badly Canadian society has treated aboriginals. We could begin to sort out what changes we have to make in the way we think.

One might start with Na-Me-Res, the Native Men’s Residence on Vaughan Road, just south of St. Clair. Recent arrivals there could advise on whether it would be worth approaching the community they came from, then making a link. I’ll bet there are a dozen different groups that would quickly form in Toronto, each to twin with a different First Nations community. There would be a lot of learning all round with visits back and forth. Reconciliation could begin in the big city.

I didn’t realize how many places Toronto is twinned with right now: Chicago, Chongqing, Frankfurt and Milan. We also have friendship agreements with Ho Chi Minh City, Kiev, Quito, Sagamihara and Warsaw. Fine places, all of them.

But First Nations? We know too little and have few points of entry. Learning about Indigenous communities just a few hundred miles away would be an entry into learning about and addressing big problems in our city.

Here’s a related initiative. The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area has had a concern about homelessness. The obvious despair of these individuals doesn’t make the downtown a more pleasant place. Police officers can issue all the tickets they want — and they do — but it has no useful impact on the problem.

Recognizing that some of these homeless people are aboriginals, the BIA introduced a simple idea. Have First Nations elders walk around with the police and treat the issue not as criminal behavior requiring sanction, but as a social issue requiring empathy and inclusion. Indeed, elders have made a real connection. Police officers learn, and aboriginals on the street are offered hope and a path toward stability.

It would be an extraordinary adventure uncovering truth and working toward reconciliation. Staff at city hall could help with initial coordination.

Let’s go one step further: perhaps community engagement could help address homelessness in general. We’d quickly learn the sad extent of our social supports.

We need these new and relatively simple ways of working, pulling the community into issues and asking them to help resolve the big problems if Toronto is to meet its full potential.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.

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