29 April 2009 - By Duane Hicks, Staff writer
“If we can’t see the opportunities aboriginal people are presenting to us on a daily basis, we, as communities, will not succeed to our fullest potential.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to take a strong look at this and say, ‘What can do we differently?’”
Anna Gibbon, aboriginal liaison for the City of Thunder Bay, delivered this message to the 160 delegates gathered for the 63rd-annual general conference of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association held earlier this month in Fort Frances.
In a move considered “historic” by the City of Thunder Bay, Gibbon was hired last August after the need to strengthen relations between the city and the aboriginal community, as well as create a higher quality of life for the urban aboriginal people, was identified as a goal in the city’s most recent strategic plan.
Since then, Gibbon, who comes from both an Anishinaabe and Western European background, has worked inclusively with the urban aboriginal population to create a climate of mutual understanding and respect, along with better working relationships.
She also is identifying gaps in services and programs.
“I heard from our corporation an acknowledgement that we are not really reaching or providing services that are appropriate for the aboriginal people, so the corporation has been very embracing of this role,” Gibbon noted.
“Not only has the aboriginal community embraced it but the corporation, as well, because I am now a resource for them to help them establish connections with the aboriginal people.”
Gibbon said the population of Thunder Bay is 15-18 percent aboriginal, with a growth rate of 22.6 percent between 2001 and 2006. The median age is 26.3 years while the median age of Thunder Bay as a whole is 41.8 years.
Almost 40 percent of the aboriginal population there is under 19 years of age.
She also said that while high school graduation rates for aboriginals tend to be lower than the Ontario average, the aboriginal graduation rate for college and university actually is higher than the average.
The unemployment rate for aboriginal people in Thunder Bay is 14.5 percent, compared to city’s overall average of 7.4 percent. The average income for aboriginals in Thunder Bay is $16,734 while the average non-aboriginal income is $27,546.
“Considering that 50 percent of all First Nations people are now living in urban settings, the issues and challenges that poverty presents are coming to our cities,” Gibbon warned. “So we have an opportunity to work closely with our First Nation communities.
“If we can help them strengthen their economic development, we all will benefit from that.”
Gibbon said one of the largest challenges aboriginal peoples face here, and across Canada, is racism and discrimination, adding clearly something is wrong when the average income for aboriginals has not changed between 2000 and 2006 despite the fact aboriginal people, especially women, are graduating with degrees.
Gibbon said that when she was hired, she realized she was facing a challenge, and asked for time to introduce herself and her role to the aboriginal community and deal “with the emotional fallout that would come.”
“When we have a history of over a hundred years, there’s a lot of water under a big bridge, so I need to be able to listen, be empathetic, not make amends, not make excuses, but just listen and say, ‘Okay, now where do we go?’” she recalled, adding city management, mayor, and council has given her “tremendous autonomy” to do what she felt was necessary.
“They gave me complete reign and said, ‘Anna, what do we need to do?’ I said, ‘We need to let the community tell us what it needs to have done.’
“We are no longer in the position of telling them ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’” stressed Gibbon. “If we want to be true partners, we go to them and say, ‘You know what, I have got an idea, what do you think about it?’ and invite them in at the beginning of the discussion.
“Our community will tell us how they want this rolled out.”
The community responded, and the city held a fall feast to announce her position and introduce her to the public.
Since then, Gibbon has become an active member on several urban aboriginal committees. She also is working to provide resources and connections between the city and the aboriginal community, as well as help form an elders’ advisory committee, through which elders can be consulted on municipal projects and policy.
“The role of the elders throughout history has not changed . . . it was a very good way for city council to recognize that historic and honourable tradition in the aboriginal community,” noted Gibbon. “This advisory committee has had a huge impact on the relationship [with the aboriginal community] in going forward.
“They’re now believing this isn’t just talk,” she stressed. “That’s understandable. We’ve heard a lot of promises throughout all of our history and a lot of promises have been broken.”
Gibbon said the benefits of having an aboriginal liaison are many, including:
•creating an inclusive community;
•provide programs and services that are culturally-appropriate;
•investment in the future workforce;
•demystifying municipal government for the aboriginal community;
•improving intergovernmental relations between the city and neighhbouring chiefs and councils; and
•creating a strong and diverse economy.
Gibbon warned many parts of the region soon will face a workforce shortage as more people retire—and the aboriginal communities are key to the future.
“We do not have immigration like a lot of other communities—Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver—has to depend on filling those roles,” she noted. “Who do we have? A large aboriginal population that is the fastest-growing population outside of immigration.
“We have been given a true gift here in Northwestern Ontario in terms of how we fill those roles coming up.
“Do they need support? Most definitely. But it’s a young population so this gives you an opportunity to approach municipal government to encourage aboriginal people to become engaged in municipal government a little differently,” Gibbon said.
“We have been given a unique opportunity.”
Gibbon added First Nation communities spend their money locally. As such, the more successful those communities are, the more their neighbours benefit.
“Take a second look at First Nation communities and say, ‘How can we help you be successful?’ By doing that, you, as a community, will be successful,” she remarked.