A critical look at Canada 150: Lisa Helps

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Canada-150-Feature-TitleWe asked community leaders and educators about Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, to reflect on this country’s present, past, and future.

Lisa Helps | Mayor of Victoria

The Martlet: What does it mean to you to be a Canadian, and what is a Canadian identity?

I think what it means to be a Canadian is, first of all, recognizing that Canada is built on Indigenous territory. So it’s fundamental for being a Canadian to recognize that unless we’re Indigenous, we’re all visitors here, we’re all settlers. We’ve all come from somewhere else. And I think that’s really important. That’s kind of number one, I guess.

And then building on that, [after] recognizing that we’re here on Indigenous lands, second to that is that Canada by its very definition is, or should be, an inclusive, welcoming, multicultural – and not just in a food and drink kind of way – a deeply multicultural place, where difference and diversity define who we are as a people.

So what does Canada 150 mean to you in the context of your mandate as mayor?

What it means to me here in Victoria is really an opportunity for reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt nations. I mean, certainly we’re doing lots of celebrating and we’ve got festivals in the Inner Harbour, and all of those things, and that’s great, that’s grand, and I welcome that, but the deep work of Canada’s 150 is beginning this process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt nations.

No one else in Canada is doing this – we’ve created what we call a “City Family,” and the City Family is made up of staff members from the city as well councillors and myself, and then some members nominated by the Songhees and Esquimalt nations … and the Chief and Council of the Songhees and the Esquimalt nations will be witnesses to the process that the City Family undertakes, and our job as a Family is to discuss proposals, get at the truth, make recommendations for action – how will we make reconciliation meaningful – and we expect this to be a process that actually takes many decades, but in Canada’s 150, I think the most important work that I can do as mayor is to convene and participate in this deep process of reconciliation.

How do you make sure what you’re doing is deep work, as opposed to ‘food and drink’ surface diversity?

I think it’s kind of hard to talk about in advance, but I imagine – and this is part of the commitment we made publically at the witness ceremony – is that we’re not just approaching this work with our minds, we’re also approaching it with our hearts, and we’re beginning from an openhearted place. Recognizing that there’s going to be a lot of pain, there’s going to be a lot of trauma, there’s going to be a lot of hard stuff to talk through and work through.

The other thing that’s very different from a First Nations’ point of view versus a traditional, democratic Western democracy point of view, at council meetings we vote. And as long as we have five people in favour, it doesn’t really matter  what the other four say after the vote is taken because we go with the majority. The way our City Family is working with any proposals that arrive at the table … and we’ll need to talk and talk and work through it until we come to consensus as a family.

And only when we have consensus do we present that to our witnesses, who are the Esquimalt and Songhees nations’ Chief and Council. And then, so we’re presenting the consensus decision of our Family to our witnesses, and so, the products may be the same, we may come up with similar proposals that we would at a council table, I doubt it, but the way we can tell that this is not just ‘food and drink diversity’ is that we’re entering into an Indigenous way of decision-making and an Indigenous way of community-building. It’s going to be quite transformative.

What would you like to see Canada be like in the next 150 years?

That’s a great question. I would like to see Canada leading the world in terms of the innovation and knowledge economy. I would like to see Canada be at the forefront of clean tech and green tech; at the forefront of this notion of ‘smart communities’ or ‘smart cities.’ Even just ten years from now, I hope that no one anywhere in Canada is living in a tent or a park. I think we have such potential as a city – we have 150 years of rich, troubled, deep, complicated history. Particularly, I think there’s an awareness right now of all the challenging places in the world to live – there’s something really great about Canada in this particular time. And if we could harness that, if we could unleash the potential of Canadians, if we can make Canada a place that’s truly inclusive, a place that’s truly affordable, a place that’s truly just, and a place that truly is committed to reconciliation, if we can do those four things, as well as committed to innovation, that we’re very well poised for the next 150 years.

To read more interviews from the feature, click here