When two Fort Albany First Nation members died following separate interactions with Timmins Police in 2018, Jennifer Constant felt for the families.
Those experiences are, unfortunately, common for Indigenous peoples, she said.
“When it gets to the point where someone dies as the result of their interaction with the police, especially if the police are called to help, cultural racial biases are definitely there,” said Constant, who is a Mattagami First Nation member and councillor in her community.
In the wake of those deaths, which were investigated by the province’s Special Investigations Unit, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) visited Timmins. The OHRC commissioner at the time said racism appeared normalized in the city.
While the city has taken steps to address racism, it is still prevalent.
The early results of a survey conducted by the Timmins Economic Development Corporation (TEDC) in spring 2021 show that over 75 per cent of respondents have witnessed racism and discrimination while living in Timmins.
Some municipalities, like the City of London and the City of Thunder Bay, have established an inclusion and anti-racism department to address issues of racism and discrimination and provide guidance and cultural sensitivity training to staff.
Timmins does not have a municipal anti-racism department.
Constant said she hasn’t seen any progress since the OHRC’s visit.
“Because Timmins is Mattagami traditional territory, you would think a certain amount of involvement for guidance or out of respect would occur,” she said. “They finally put our flag up to acknowledge our territory but does a flag address systemic issue? It’s a start and we’re not unappreciative of that but there’s so much work to do.”
For Constant, the creation of a similar anti-racism and inclusion office in Timmins is “necessary” and “long overdue.”
“I think whenever you have any municipality that has citizens that represent a diverse range of races, cultural backgrounds, you do need to make sure you have something in place to make sure needs are being met, the issues are being addressed,” she said.
She said more officers of different ethnicities should be on the police force, there needs to be in-depth cultural training and an internal review of policies for any biases.
The City of Timmins currently has an Indigenous Advisory Committee (IAC). After a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, meetings resumed in December 2020.
From conversations with colleagues and other larger municipalities, CAO Dave Landers said having an anti-racism department or division in a city the size of Timmins is a “hit and miss“. Timmins staff also often carry responsibilities in different departments, he said.
“When I look back to what council had considered in its strategic planning for the 2020 strategic plan, it hasn’t been looking at creating a department of the city specifically related to anti-racism or anti-discrimination,” he said. “Rather, it was looking at the establishment of an anti-discrimination committee at the time, linking that with a cultural committee.”
Adding a new department or hiring a staff member would be determined during the budget process or through strategic planning.
Reviewing inclusive hiring practices also hasn’t been “on the radar” for the city at this point, Landers said. But with some guidance and work with the IAC, it can be looked at to see how it might fit within the municipality, he said.
Led by then-mayor Steve Black, in 2018 the city set out an action plan. It included creating the Indigenous Advisory Committee, hosting staff training, creating a leadership forum with municipal and Indigenous leaders, and permanently raising three Indigenous flags at city hall.
The OHRC also called on the City of Timmins to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) calls to action, create a standing committee in partnership with Indigenous leaders, recruit a municipal team to take action on racism, lead anti-racism initiatives and publicly report on the state of human rights.
Black said having anti-racism or similar office at the municipal level would help to “have a lead” but it should be a city-wide and regional effort. The surrounding communities, service providers, education and healthcare sectors that have their own boards and governance need to get involved, too, Black said.
“I think there’s still lots of room for improvement, I think that’s made clear every day. I don’t think it’s a unique issue to Timmins,” he said. “But definitely we need to focus on how we can make things better in our region.“
The City of Thunder Bay has an Indigenous Relations and Inclusion office to provide cultural awareness training, advice and liaison support. Regina Mandamin was hired as manager of Indigenous relations and inclusion in 2019.
Mandamin’s position merged with the city’s former Aboriginal Liaison Office, which was established in 2008, and the division was renamed to Relations and Inclusion.
In addition to Mandamin, the department includes an Indigenous liaison and a policy analyst.
“We’re a small but mighty team doing a lot of work,” Mandamin said. “But this is a whole community effort that involves everyone. It’s not just one person in an office, it involves a whole community to make positive change.”
Mandamin said her position was created in response to the need for a senior management position to advise the corporation and city council and to provide more leadership at a different level.
For the city, creating and filling the position was a “key, first-year goal” after signing the Anti-Racism and Inclusion Accord, along with other community partners in 2018.
The office has started providing a mandatory six-hour cultural awareness training to the executive and divisional management staff. The training, which is currently virtual, will be provided to 2,500 staff. At least 140 people have already been trained.
Dedicating a full day for the training was supported by executive management to allow people to take the time to learn about Indigenous history and relations, Mandamin said.
Lakehead University’s Indigenous department developed the training curriculum, with Mandamin’s office fine-tuning and customizing it.
The response from the training has been really good and staff were happy with the detailed curriculum and interactive activities. Mandamin said people wished they had more time to learn how to work with elders, protocols of powwows and how to be more supportive in the community.
“It’s really sparked an appetite for more learning opportunities. So we’re taking that feedback of what they’d like to learn more about and having staff lunch-and-learns which is led by our Indigenous liaison,” Mandamin said.
Since Mandamin started her job, a renewed seven-year Indigenous Relations and Inclusion Strategy based on an Indigenous framework has been approved. Mandamin called it a “big undertaking” that included community engagement with Indigenous partners.
The office will be doing public engagement to develop a multi-year implementation plan for the strategy. The plan is expected to be launched in November.
In Mandamin’s experience, breaking down the silos is the key to getting into senior initiatives and ideas through reconciliation.
“One thing that has really helped is empowering city staff to get out of their comfort zones to engage in this work. And teamwork and communication are really important,” she said.
Capacity is one of the limitations the office is facing. Given the number of staff and departments within the corporation, it’s a tall order for three staff to meet the needs of everybody, Mandamin said.
The biggest challenge is to underscore the importance of taking generations to see sustainable change, Mandamin said.
“One of the biggest challenges is doing the good work but accepting that you can’t please everybody or do every single thing that needs to be done,” she said. “There are no quick fixes. Some of these important changes will not happen overnight, and people need to be committed and patient understanding of how much work needs to go into these important tasks.”
With Indigenous awareness training recently being approved for City of Timmins employees, once that rolls out, the milestones set out by the city in 2018 will have been achieved.
Landers said the city has been addressing the calls made by the OHRC, noting there’s only a handful of Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action that apply to municipalities.
In February 2020, the City of Timmins renewed the Relationship Agreement with Mushkegowuk Council.
Some of the initiatives the city has been involved in include participating in the Misiway mural project, hosting evacuees, working on developing a street patrol program, the Timmins Diversity Awareness Project, working with the community partners on providing shelter services, and more.
In April, the city’s Indigenous Engagement Framework was approved. It has three themes: addressing humanitarian needs, delivering on the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and re-engaging economic alliances.