How an Indigenous voice on London's next city council could make a difference - Includes quotes from Professor Cody Groat

CBC News by Colin Butler, posted Oct 11, 2022

Indingenous people are one of the fastest growing minorities in the city.

First Nation scholars and advocates say if an Indigenous voice was to be elected to London city council, it would go a long way to help the 11,000 Indigenous people in the city, and it would also build a more inclusive city hall by adding diversity to a mostly white council some criticize as racially unrepresentative of the city at large.

Danalynn Williams, 55, is running for councillor in Ward 14 against Steve Hillier and Sarah Lehman. Unlike her opponents, Williams is Indigenous. She hopes to leverage her cultural identity as a way to distinguish herself from the other contenders.

"It's not a diverse city council and I'd like to see that diversity there," she said. "I'm very proud to say that I'm First Nation. I think it's about time we start speaking for ourselves and standing up and saying 'we are here' and 'we are capable' and able to take on roles that we once were spoken for."

Nearly 11,000 people reported their identity as Indigenous in the City of London in the 2021 census, according to Statistics Canada. It represents an 11 per cent growth in the number of people who reported their cultural identity as Indigenous in the 2016 census and is on par with the growth rate of the city's population at large.

Racialized voices on council are 'lacking' says historian
London city officials could not confirm whether the city has ever elected an Indigenous councillor in its history. Spokesperson Jo Ann Johnston said racial and cultural information isn't collected by city hall when it comes to new council members and as such, there is no historical record.

Williams believes if she is elected, she would be the city's first-ever Indigenous councillor. Indigenous scholars and advocates said it would be a symbolic change for a group of people this is often marginalized socio-economically and politically.

"It would be about offering a different perspective," said Cody Groat, an associate professor of history and Indigenous studies at Western University who lives in London, Ont., and is also a band member of Six Nations of the Grand River.

"I think just having that extra voice at the table, having that racialized voice, that Indigenous voice is something that has been lacking."

Groat said while one Indigenous voice among a 14-member city council doesn't sound like much, it could go a long way in helping the way law enforcement interacts with the city's Indigenous people, a population that's been traditionally overrepresented in the justice system.

"Having a new Indigenous perspective in relation to that is something that could definitely be beneficial," he said, noting the biggest problem for a candidate looking to represent Indigenous voices in the city is the fact that, as a voting bloc, Indigenous people traditionally have a low turnout rate and there are few studies that can explain why.

"It's really hard to say. There has been imposed barriers historically that have prevented Indigenous people from participating in the electoral system, a lot of those obviously were formed decades ago, but we even look at elected systems within reserve communities and voter turnout in those instances are also really low."

Could help political marginalized people more connected

Elizabeth Frances Moore, an Anishnaabe woman who is also an Indigenous advocate living in London, said just having an Indigenous councillor would help a lot of Indigenous people feel more connected to local government because, for once, they would have someone who understood their cultural point of view.

"We do look at things from a collective perspective and unfortunately Western society is very much an instant gratification quick-move-on-the-timeline and that doesn't always mean the correct people are consulted in a good way and it doesn't always mean the best decisions are made."

"[Having an Indigenous person on council] would lend some accessibility. Everything is relationship-building, so provided that whoever this person is building relationships with the community already, that would certainly be helpful."

It's also a double-edged sword, Moore noted, pointing out the fact that while an Indigenous voice would lend accessibility to council for an under-represented group, it would also paint a political bull's eye on the person's back, leaving them vulnerable to extremists and what Moore called "racial tropes."

"'Angry Indigenous woman' is one of those tropes and I've experienced it in my life, where speaking up for an issue and being passionate about something has that pushback where you're labelled as being angry or aggressive and you're just fighting for your community and equity and basic human rights."

It's the reason Moore thinks it would take an extremely strong individual with a robust peer support network to withstand being at the centre of the clash of cultures that comes with trying to represent Indigenous interests in a Western political system.

"I think anyone who would come into this world would have to walk in two worlds and they would definitely need a support network of community and elders around," she said.