Today at city hall, Halifax Regional Council took a bold step forward and made an official statement of reconciliation to the aboriginal community.
It was an emotional vote for councillor Jennifer Watts, who fought back tears while stating this was the most important moment of her political career. After the unanimous vote passed, Watts left her chair for a celebratory hug with Pam Glode-Desrochers, executive director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre.
“We haven’t really understood or acknowledged as a municipality our relationship with First Nations people,” Watts said after the meeting. “I think we’ve come to realize we really need to more formally recognize our relationships. This was really the first step in doing that...For me, it’s an historic day.”
Recognizing the “deep and lasting traumatic impact” of the residential school system, today’s statement declared that HRM stands with other big Canadian cities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in ensuring the needs and aspirations of First Nations communities are fully acknowledged.
“We stand together today in committing to a new equal partnership with aboriginal people in Canada,” the statement reads. “One based on truth, dignity and mutual respect.”
Mayor Mike Savage, who spoke passionately about the statement’s importance before council voted, echoed Watts’ comments about why the reconciliation is needed. Savage noted many other major cities—particularly in western provinces with denser urban aboriginal populations—more formally acknowledge shared histories.
“I don’t think we’ve ever fully, seriously said to the M’ikmaq people that we value you, respect you and want you to be part of the government of the city. I’ve always felt we could do more as a city.”
Today’s statement addressed HRM’s office of diversity and inclusion, and the Big City Mayor’s Caucus’ recently-launched aboriginal partnership and reconciliation working group—instructing them to work together to identify ways the city can take action on several of the 94 recommendations made earlier this year by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
That could include a more consistent naming of locations using traditional Mi’kmaw language, as well as new educational opportunities.
“A lot of what may seem to be not earth-shattering things,” Watts says, “but really important things that signal when you walk into a municipal building that we recognize the relationship; the presence of the Mi'kmaq here.”
That statement coincidentally came on the same day the federal government announced details of its inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
At a press conference this afternoon, Indigenous and Northern Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett announced that the newly-minted federal government has launched its inquiry into Canada’s alarming–and growing–number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
The government will be meeting with affected families, indigenous organizations and provincial and territorial representatives to establish the inquiry’s parameters and objectives according to their needs and recommendations.
Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the media that those meetings would take place “over the next two months,” with the first happening this week in Ottawa. Wilson-Raybould will be at the helm of these meetings, alongside Bennett and Status of Women minister Patty Hajdu.
The most recent numbers estimate there are nearly 1,200 missing or murdered aboriginal women and girls across Canada. There are two Halifax women among them.
Inuk SMU student Loretta Saunders disappeared in February 2013. Her body was later discovered in a discarded hockey bag on a median off the Trans Canada Highway near Salisbury, New Brunswick. At the time of Saunders’ disappearance, she was working on her thesis on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Saunders’ roommate Blake Leggette and his partner Victoria Henneberry plead guilty to first- and second-degree murder, respectively, in her death and have been sentenced to life in prison.
The body of Mi’kmaw mother of five Tanya Jean Brooks was found in a window well of St. Patrick's-Alexandra School in May 2009. Six years following her death, the investigation is ongoing. The province is offering up to $150,000 for information pertaining to the case. A yearly memorial walk is held in Brooks' honour.