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How Can We Build Better Partnerships Between Civic Organizations and Indigenous Communities?

How municipalities and civic leaders can build pathways for collaboration with Indigenous communities

Urban Agriculture at Evergreen Brick Works Toronto, Ontario. Isaac Crosby lead in urban agriculture demonstrating gardening practices to a group of people. Image: Aphria Inc.
Image: Aphria Inc.

Published on June 15, 2021

By Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook, PhD 

Indigenous peoples are at the heart of the past, present and future of cities across Canada. Their public spaces and institutions occur on Indigenous lands, and are imprinted with the hunting and trade routes, artistic creations, stories and continuous presence of Indigenous peoples. 

These spaces are intended to benefit all residents. Yet, they have been designed in ways that privilege the rights and perspectives of particular settler groups above urban Indigenous and racialized communities, who have experienced a long and tangled history of injustice in these very spaces. 

Municipalities and civic leaders must commit to long-term investment in the restoration of Indigenous inherent rights and treaty rights, the strengthening of cultural identities and capacity building, and to building robust communities that are self-determined by Indigenous peoples. 

While those same municipalities and civic organizations are often interested in reconciliation actions and partnering with Indigenous communities, they often lack knowledge and confidence about what that path should be. 

The ongoing process of reconciliation  

The tendency of many municipalities in Canada has been to opt for co-existing with Indigenous community instead of building pathways for collaboration and deeper engagement. 

The complex terrain of legal rights, governance structures, economic conditions, demographics and cultures, capacities and resources, and relationships with settler governments and institutions across diverse Indigenous nations and geographies makes the process even more daunting. 

Still, there is increasing understanding by some settler institutions that reconciliation is not a moment in time, but a long and ongoing process of honesty, repair, recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and healing that involves both settler institutions and Indigenous peoples. 

What is less understood is that this process must be initiated and shouldered by settlers in a lifelong commitment centered on truth-telling and dismantling settler colonialism.  
 Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook, PhD

This is primarily the work of settler governments and society – not of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.  

These institutions must commit to and deliver on both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Actions, and Principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

And while Indigenous and civic practitioners may have very different worldviews, they share similar priorities and hopes for building strong and resilient futures for their respective communities. 

Decolonization of organizations 

An imperative learning for settler organizations interested in engaging Indigenous staff and partners in relationships and processes that genuinely include their worldviews and disrupt and reconfigure inequitable power dynamics and colonial patterns, is for leadership to listen to and learn from the experiences and needs of Indigenous staff and partners. 

Willingness by executive leadership to create space for critical reflection of internal biases and blind spots (no matter how unintentional), and deep learning from and deference to Indigenous leadership, worldviews and methodologies is often challenging for organizations, especially those will long-established systems and cultures.  

The positive outcomes of these actions can lead to enduring and reciprocal partnerships with Indigenous community, as well as deep cultural and humanizing shifts within the organization that benefit all staff, partners and community participants. 

Decolonization within the organization must also be approached through systems and institutional level transformations by: decentering settler biases and dominance in institutions and professional fields; and valuing and revitalizing Indigenous knowledges and approaches. 

Decolonizing municipal structures and civic organizations is an ongoing, evolving process that requires both settlers and urban Indigenous peoples to work together to create public institutions and spaces that are equitable, inclusive and honour Indigenous presence, cultures, and futures. 
 By Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook, PhD

Hear more at Future Cities Canada: The Summit on June 23, 2021 

We will be discussing these important topics at an upcoming session at Future Cities Canada: The Summit, where I will bring Toronto-based Indigenous practitioners together to discuss their experiences and expertise in integrating Indigenous placekeeping protocols, design principles and community engagement within the planning, activation and stewardship of public parks and spaces. 

These learnings can also be found in the upcoming Civic-Indigenous Placekeeping & Partnership Building Toolkit, which I authored and is enriched by the contributions and deep knowledge and creativity base of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers and practitioners. It will be available to the public in the fall. 

If you’re looking for more visuals, you could add the speaker card for this session here. 

About Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook, PhD 

Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook specializes in research, Indigenous/community engagement and education in the areas of environmental stewardship, climate resilience, innovation, placekeeping, health and mental wellness, and international development. She leads research and thought leadership, strategy and programming, curriculum development, and advising for the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology (CIIT), Evergreen and Future Cities Canada (FCC). Two of the Indigenous strategies that she has led for FCC are: i) the Indigenous Re-imagining of Cities Program, a platform for collaborative research, convenings, knowledge mobilization, and place-based activations focused on Indigenous placekeeping and civic-Indigenous partnerships; and ii) the Community Solutions Network, an innovation capacity building and digital inclusion initiative in partnership with Indigenous community and technology leaders.  

Tanya holds a PhD in Environmental Studies, and has graduate and postdoctoral training in international development studies, climate change, Indigenous health, and psychotherapy. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses, educational workshops and presented and published her research and writing across Canada and internationally. Her Akawaio and mixed ancestry from Guyana and the Netherlands, combined with interdisciplinary and international experiences, enable her to bring both Indigenous and multifaceted perspectives to her work.