Two years after launch, patience pays off for Calgary Indigenous Relations office, team says

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Rushing into the lobby of Calgary City Hall on Wednesday, Terry Thumbelina is busy organizing an event to celebrate Aboriginal Awareness Week.

“A typical day involves back-to-back meetings to plan Indigenous outreach for different business units, supporting different business units with Indigenous engagement,” Poucette said.

“On top of that, we have council motions that we need to pursue.”

These motions are huge initiatives — the aboriginal relations governance model, the aboriginal gathering place, and the residential schools memorial project.

Thumbelina, who says she comes from a traditional Stoney Nakoda Nation family, is the team leader for the town’s Indigenous Relations Office (IRO).

When she accepted the position in January 2020, she was told the office would support the City of Calgary in promoting truth and reconciliation.

The IRO was created in January 2020, but its progress has been slowed by COVID-19, team members said. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The creation of the IRO was a call to action in the city’s White Goose Flying Report which was published in 2016 – a city response to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

And while Thumbelina says the pandemic has presented challenges to the office’s goals, Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra told CBC News on Wednesday that the board is very committed to the work.

“I can’t wait to see it grow, gain a foothold beneath itself, expand its influence on every decision we make as a city,” Carra said.

“Reconciliation is not a race”

This work is done both inside and outside the walls of City Hall.

The OIR has developed an Indigenous 101 training program for internal staff.

People are first directed to get the basics of native people in Canada, Alberta and Calgary. After that, other forms of training are offered.

“Change is slow and reconciliation is not a race. It’s not a tick box exercise. So just be patient,” Thumbelina said.

She also had to practice this patience at times.

She refers to recent tensions between different Indigenous groups during the planning process for the Indigenous Gathering Place, where she is the corporate team leader.

The challenge was not the tension between the groups, but the education of his non-native colleagues.

“I emphasize to our leaders – and society at large – that to expect all Indigenous nations and all Indigenous peoples to get along is a double standard, and if they don’t, there must be something wrong,” Thumbelina said.

“You don’t expect all Canadians, all provinces, all countries to get along. So why are you placing that expectation on Indigenous peoples?”

In her role, Thumbelina knows she must navigate the city’s complex Indigenous community.

“I think at the end of the day, we all want the same thing as Indigenous people. We want reconciliation, we want to be included, we want to be respected.”

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