By Clint Buehler
EDMONTON – Three levels of government have stepped up to provide $450,000 to fund and participate in an innovative new initiative created to provide a way for Edmonton’s Aboriginal communities, along with government and private sector organizations, to come together to understand and address urban Aboriginal community priorities.
It’s called the Wicihitowin (Cree for “they help each other”): Circle of Shared Responsibility, or Wicihitowin Circle, and establishes a mechanism for inclusive, culturally appropriate consensus on Aboriginal community priorities and coordinates the efforts of multiple partners to develop and implement needed services and programs. The three levels of government and other stakeholders, in addition to providing funding, have played a facilitative partner role with the community to develop the Wicihitowin Circle.
A contribution of $185,000 from the Government of Canada, $190,000 from Alberta Aboriginal Affairs, and $75,000 from the City of Edmonton will help support the organization’s operations and its work to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal people in Edmonton, including research for solutions to issues such as health, employment, housing, education, poverty, addiction, economic development, community information and cultural programs.
The funding will help Wicihitowin set up a small office, pay salaries and bills, and provide administrative and logistical support.
Wicihitowin will not deliver programs and services itself, but will coordinate groups that already provide services to Aboriginals, helping the organizations work together to complete major projects, secure funding and other resources, and avoid duplication.
Discussions about a more community-driven approach to help Aboriginal people in Edmonton started in 2005 when city council signed an accord aiming to improve relations. Since then, a dozen “community circles,” each composed of as many as 40 different organizations, have been working to create Wicihitowin.
The circles are a traditional way to peacefully discuss divisive issues.
“The Government of Canada is pleased to be a strategic partner and active participant in the Wicihitowin Circle in its role as steering committee for the Urban Aboriginal Strategy in Edmonton,” said Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn on behalf of Hon. Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and the Federal Interlocutor for Metis and Non-Status Indians. “We are particularly proud to be part of a process that brings governments and community organizations together to support the aspirations of Aboriginal people living in Canada’s urban centres, and respond to their concerns.”
His comments were echoed by Alberta Aboriginal Relations Minister Gene Zwozdesky: “The Government of Alberta is committed to working with urban Aboriginal communities, municipalities and other stakeholders to enhance programs and services delivered by Aboriginal people,” he said. “We’re helping Aboriginal people to help each other.”
Zwozdesky said the circle reflects a change in thinking in government circles, with newfound respect for constitutional rights, Aboriginal rights and now asserted rights.
In addition to Wicihitowin, the province supports a number of urban Aboriginal initiatives by providing more than $700,000 in operating funds for the Alberta Native Friendship Centre Association and the network of 20 friendship centres across Alberta.
Said Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, “we are fortunate to share in the diverse cultural, social and economic contributions that our Aboriginal population brings to our city. The support of all orders of government is very much in the spirit of Wicihitowin and will help ensure that Aboriginal people have a strong voice in our city’s future.”
Veteran Edmonton City Councillor Ron Hayter—long a vigorous champion for Aboriginal people—calls the new initiative a breakthrough, a change from governments having ultimate say over Aboriginal programs and policies.
Hayter said the greatest achievement could be having the many groups and governments work efficiently, all in one direction, rather than the city setting its course, and Aboriginals setting their own course.
“My children don’t just want survive, they want to thrive,” says Joy Sinclair, Wicihitowin president and co-chair (with Faye Dewar).
“We, as urban Aboriginal people, have never before come together in this way to help address the specific concerns and issues of Aboriginal people in the city of Edmonton.
“The voice of Joy Sinclair is at the table,” she told the Edmonton Journal. “That never was the case before , to have community voices actively being a part of decision-making on our own behalf, actively working in partnership, and that’s what Wicihitowin’s all about.
Alberta has an estimated Aboriginal population of almost 250,000, with two-thirds of them living in urban centres, and 52,000 of those in Edmonton, giving it the second-largest Aboriginal urban population in Canada next to Winnipeg, according to Zwozdesky.
“That’s up 56 per cent from just over 10 years ago, so you can see how quickly this is climbing.”