During the summers of Shylo Elmayan’s childhood, her family drove around Ontario attending powwows. Her mother sold crafts and moccasins while Elmayan and her sister took part in the dancing. They’re members of the Long Lake #58 First Nation, an Anishinaabe community roughly 120 kilometres north of Lake Superior.
Elmayan was born and raised in Hamilton; she recalls her mother taking her to a children’s program at the city’s Regional Indian Centre, where she made crafts and played games. Later, as a teenager, she took one of her first summer jobs there. Since then, Elmayan has earned degrees in First Nations studies and public policy. Now she’s the senior project manager of Hamilton’s new urban Indigenous strategy.
“One of the goals is to build that stronger relationship with the Indigenous community in Hamilton,” she says. “This is one step towards that.”
Elmayan will meet with organizations and advocates to find out what they want from the initiative. It will be a collaborative effort, she says: “This is our time to listen and work with the community … I’m really looking forward to sitting down and hearing about what the priorities for the strategy should be.”
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City councillor Aidan Johnson came up with the idea for an urban Indigenous strategy two years ago. Before winning his council seat in 2014, Johnson worked as a legal-aid lawyer in Hamilton, defending several First Nations accused over the years.
In handling these cases, Johnson became well-versed in Gladue rights, a Criminal Code provision requiring courts to consider the effects of colonialism and racism on Indigenous people at sentencing. In a 1999 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that the principle is remedial, designed to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prisons across the country. Johnson worked with elders and other members of Hamilton’s Indigenous community as he put together release plans for clients who were seeking bail or being sentenced.
“That was a real eye-opener for me,” Johnson says. “I learned a great deal about the poverty and the racism that continue to marginalize Indigenous people in Hamilton.”
It’s a lot to take in. The Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton released a report in 2015 that looked at the city’s Aboriginal population — nearly 16,000 people, according to the 2011 census. It noted that these residents, on average, were less educated and experienced higher rates of poverty and homelessness than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
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A 2011 report, funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, found that First Nations Hamiltonians face “substantial barriers” to accessing health care and have “much higher” emergency-admission rates than the general population.
Johnson hopes the strategy will help correct such inequities. The motion he presented to city council in 2015 dovetailed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released that year. The report includes 94 recommendations, and it doesn’t just call upon the federal government to implement them — it implores provincial, territorial, and municipal bodies to help out as well.
“It clarified for me that municipal governments, as branches of the Crown, have a role to play in creating equality and in ending colonialism in Canada,” Johnson says. “I want to make sure Hamilton is doing its part.”
Other Ontario cities, including Toronto and Thunder Bay, have created urban Aboriginal strategies, too. Thunder Bay launched its version in 2003 to tackle family poverty. An advisory committee comprised of Indigenous organizations, agencies, and government representatives oversees the project, which has provided services such as a mining tradeshow to teach job skills and provide access to employment opportunities, and a leadership program for Aboriginal youth.
The federal government implemented a similar program in 1997, intended to bolster services and programming for Indigenous city-dwellers. Seventeen years later, the government partnered with the National Association of Friendship Centres to provide funds for which local groups and projects can apply, with the aim of increasing Indigenous participation in the broader economy.
It’s too early to say what, if anything, Hamilton’s strategy will accomplish. For Elmayan, it’s like a blank slate. Her first task will be to survey the diverse experiences of Indigenous Hamiltonians. She says she’s eager to hear their stories and share her own — and to discover what changes the community wants to see.
“This is going to be a great opportunity for the city,” she says.
Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist.