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Is There a Distinctly “Vancouver” Watch?
Ginger Gosnell-Myers joined the City of Vancouver as an Aboriginal planner in 2013 to encourage departments to look at planning through an Indigenous lens. She has since become the city’s first Aboriginal relations manager, a role dedicated to turning that awareness into policy—ensuring each report, proposal and decision tabled at city hall considers the impact on Vancouver’s Aboriginal population. As the city moves toward its goal of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, progress is being made in some surprising places.
Q: Vancouver declared itself a City of Reconciliation a year before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wrapped up in 2015. What did taking that step mean?
A: The report had some clearly laid-out directions for various levels of institutions and governments to adopt. Vancouver has already been able to commit to 27 of the 94 calls to action, such as incorporating First Nations perspectives in delivering city services and training staff in how to have an urban Aboriginal lens on issues. What does being a City of Reconciliation mean? It means we want Vancouver’s Aboriginal population to feel empowered that they’ll have the ability to make a positive impact. That’s embedded in the city now.
Q: How do you embed reconciliation in departments where the job is to make sure lights are working or roads are in good shape?
A: You talk about roads and lighting, places where you may not think it matters. But think about what’s changed. Our engineering department, for example, has changed. We actually have to dig into the ground in order to build these roads and maintain the water and sewage systems. Sometimes we’ll be digging in areas that have archaeological significance and remains or artifacts that are directly tied to Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh. We can’t dig without knowing what we would find. Having the Aboriginal lens to the work engineering does means they are prepared, they know in advance what they might find. We have a working relationship between engineering and the local First Nations.
Q: You once said that being urban is not just a new identity for Aboriginal people, but that it’s about a choice, and you take issue with the label of “urban Aboriginal.” Why is that?
A: Being Aboriginal means being First Nations, Métis or Inuit. It’s multiple cultures, and labelling multiple cultures with one convenient identity doesn’t really acknowledge how different they really are. For a long time, there was a tendency to label Aboriginal people who lived in cities as urban Aboriginal people. They’re not. They’re Nisga’a or Kwakwaka’wakw, like me, . They just happen to live in the city.
Q: You’ve talked about the family tree and how well Aboriginal people know that tree. How important is that for the future of the city?
A: That’s my biggest aspiration for the city. We all have knowledge and an understanding that this is Indigenous land and that we’re all on Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land. But can you name an area that you would see as an Indigenous place in the city? No. They’re quite invisible, even in their own land. The city has a significant role to make sure that we all understand that there’s ancient history here and we’re not a new city. That our culture is not building towers of glass but rather that we are a truly unique place on earth. No other city has that culture based on that history that we do here.
Q: What would you like to see to make that invisi-bility more visible?
A: I would like to see Aboriginal people represented in our governments. Maybe one day we’ll see an Aboriginal person elected to city council.
Q: What will reconciliation look like when it’s been achieved?
A: My personal opinion is that reconciliation means Aboriginal people will be able to experience the same quality of life afforded to all Canadians. All of those socio-economic gaps are closed: health, housing, water, justice, education. For the broader Canadian population, the aspiration should be that we become a country where these disparities no longer exist.