Aamjiwnaang councillor Marina Plain.

By Colin Graf 

SARNIA – City Council in this south-western Ontario city has appointed an advisory body to help develop a plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in the city.   The  14 -member committee is tasked with finding ways the city government can help implement the declaration and to find ways to help implement findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says Mayor Mike Bradley.

“These matters are not just federal and provincial responsibilities. Everyone has to work on this,” he told Anishinabek News.  “True reconciliation is not just rhetoric, it’s action,” Bradley adds, explaining about a recent meeting with Chief Joanne Rogers of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, which neighbours Sarnia.  The Chief has gone “on the record” for the first time with matters the First Nation, which has many services provided by Sarnia, wants addressed by City Council.  A request for a new water line that will give enough capacity to build the first seniors’ residence at Aamjiwnaang, is an important example of this, says Bradley. “When you have  things locally that could make a difference” to the relationship between First Nations and other Canadians, it’s important to act, he says.

Bradley also wants the committee to explore sections of the UNDRIP dealing with the rights to a clean environment.   Promoting environmental protection around health issues is for everyone, he says, as some Sarnia residents live as close to the chemical plants known as “Canada’s Chemical Valley” as some Aamjiwnaang residents, and are similarly exposed to the possible effects of pollution.

The idea for the committee originated with a letter to the city from a local Anglican church about what the city could do to implement UNDRIP and the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action last March, according to Bradley.  The church letter points out the overlap between the TRC and UNDRIP,  describing how the Commission’s Call to Action 43 calls the federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to “fully adopt and implement UNDRIP as the framework for reconciliation.”

An ad hoc Sarnia Council committee suggested the UNDRIP group should be “broadly representational” with members from the education, health, business, agriculture, arts, justice, and faith-based sectors, along with representatives from First Nations government, and the local Friendship Centre.

Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang have already started down the path of reconciliation, says Bradley and Rogers, signing what the mayor calls a “friendship agreement” last Dec.  The Cooperation Protocol is designed to establish a positive working relationship between the two governments “based on common local interests,” and promotes working together to “facilitate the sharing of information, improve communications, and establish a solid foundation for future planning,” according to the document’s text.

The agreement also promises the Chief and Mayor will meet at least four times a year to discuss issues of common concern, and is meant to help economic development at Aamjiwnaang by clarifying “who we have to call” at the city to discuss cost-sharing or locating infrastructure for new buildings, Chief Joanne Rogers has said.

Having a good relationship between the two governments is very important as Aamjiwnaang is one of only a handful of First Nations in Canada  surrounded by an urban municipality, says Bradley.  Service agreements over fire, water, police, and sewage have been in place between the partners since the 1950s.

It’s important for the Mayor, Chief, and Councillors to get to know each other personally to establish respect and trust, according to Bradley.  “It’s easy to have a good relationship when there are no problems,” he says.  Personal relationships between elected officials really help when problems do develop, such as during an Idle No More blockade of a CN Rail line at Aamjiwnaang in Dec. 2012, according to Bradley.  He credits the understanding between himself, former Chief Chris Plain, and Sarnia police with bringing a peaceful conclusion to that situation.

Aamjiwnaang councillor Marina Plain, who will serve in the city’s new group,  agrees with Bradley that Sarnia is “ahead of the game in relationship-building” with the First Nation, but hopes the working group will help First Nations people living in the city achieve parity of services with those at Aamjiwnaang. Plain says there are a ”high number” who can’t get housing at the First Nation, and they don’t always access the same level of service

Plain says she is also interested in working to implement Jordan’s Principle at the local level, so children don’t fall through the cracks when needing medical or other forms of help, implementing the TRC Calls-to-Action, and seeking allies in Sarnia for help with Aamjiwnaang’s environmental concerns.  She hopes the committee might help  lobby senior governments for funding for a long-hoped-for study of the effects of pollution from local chemical plants on people’s health.

Social media posts in the Sarnia area show some local people have “misunderstandings” regarding the First Nation’s worries about connections between cancer and pollution, Plain says.  “I know it’s a hard thing to prove” according to Plain, and  “the  Chemical Valley fuels the economy here, but workers too are reporting they are getting sick.” She hopes the new group will help the rest of Sarnia understand “where we are coming from in terms of what our responsibility is to protect the land; that’s a responsibility of the Anishinabe,” she says.

Another committee member, Sarnia councillor Anne Marie Gillis, says the TRC’s ideas could have an impact in every aspect of Sarnia’s community, and will need all the members to read them and make suggestions. The UNDRIP will probably be the first point of discussion, along with the TRC report.   The group will need to look at “what can we do to reach out and also show that we are a community that wants to be cooperative and respectful to all our citizenry,” whether city or First Nation, Gillis says.

She supports the idea having a territorial acknowledgement read out before City Council meetings. Not only would that be a “huge” gesture to Sarnia’s First Nations’ people, but it would also be “a good teaching tool,” which “really focuses your attention on where exactly you are.”

Sarnia’s deputy fire chief Bryan Van Gaver will serve on the committee “with an open mind,” and a desire to help bridge the divide between First Nations residents and the rest of the city.  He became “quite intrigued” about the history of First Nations people in Canada after being invited to a blanket exercise at Aamjiwnaang earlier this year.  “I was quite shocked how that all that came about and how people were treated,” Van Gaver says.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13.