A letter from a group of Indigenous Torontonians consulted by Sidewalk Labs for its proposed smart-city community in Toronto says the Google sister company created a “grossly misleading implication of endorsement” from their involvement, and did not heed their recommendations.
Sidewalk’s tripartite government development partner, Waterfront Toronto, will vote next Thursday on whether to proceed with the project. Waterfront chair Stephen Diamond has called Sidewalk’s draft master plan “aggressive," and asked the company to realign its proposal with the public agency’s vision for the project.
In that draft plan released in June, Sidewalk asked to have a hand in planning a swath of lakefront land 16 times bigger than the 12-acre site it had won the right to plan. It also asked governments to expand public transit in the area, pay the company performance bonuses, and rewrite provincial and municipal laws to accommodate its proposal.
In an open letter to Waterfront’s board of directors on Friday, Ojibway elder Duke Redbird and Calvin Brook, principal at urban-design firm Brook McIlroy, say Sidewalk asked Brook McIlroy’s Indigenous Design Studio to host an Indigenous consultation workshop in November, 2018. A group of 15 people attended, including Indigenous designers and architects, and gave Sidewalk 14 recommendations and several Indigenous design principles.
The recommendations included an Indigenous school and education programs on the 12-acre site; guarantees of affordable housing for Indigenous people; a group of local Indigenous experts to review design principles and implementation; and commitments to Indigenous public art.
When they read the draft master plan in June, the authors of the letter wrote, they found none of their recommendations were “acknowledged or carried forward in any substantial manner."
In the plan, Sidewalk refers to working with the Indigenous Design Studio, including “to bring together Indigenous artists and designers to discuss Indigenous design principles and how state-of-the-art technology might intersect with the richness of Indigenous design.” The letter said the consultation “was used to manufacture a politically correct endorsement.”
The letter added to the criticism about Sidewalk’s consultations. One prominent opponent, #BlockSidewalk, has called the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary’s public outreach efforts “theatre."
Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang said in a statement on Friday that the project is still in early stages, and more public engagement is planned. She said the November, 2018, workshop “helped inform our plans, including ensuring affordable housing will be accessible for all demographics, recognizing the relationship between the treaty and the land, design competitions for Indigenous artists on future projects, and a zone for Indigenous place-making ... to embody Indigenous history and presence.”
She also said the draft plan promised Sidewalk would work with Indigenous workforce agencies for training and hiring for jobs with the project, and that the final outcome would “reflect and acknowledge Indigenous presence on the waterfront” through design and education.
In an interview, Mr. Redbird said he felt the consultation was a check-the-box exercise, and that the plan did not follow through on the recommendations.
In the draft master plan, “they mention that they’re ‘mindful of a history of broken treaties,’ and of the ‘urgent need to work continuously toward reconciliation,’” said Mr. Redbird, an activist, journalist and artist. “I don’t think anyone understands what reconciliation means. ... Reconciliation is a genuine dialogue that gives sincere and thoughtful consideration of our proposals, as we gave thoughtful consideration in developing them.”
Mr. Redbird said about 30 people, half of whom were Indigenous, met this month to review the draft master plan. The letter said its references to the group’s inclusion reveal “a practice of manipulation which is unacceptable, but foretelling of the type of relationship Torontonians can expect if Sidewalk Labs becomes Waterfront Toronto’s partner.”
The letter also called Sidewalk’s depiction of mass-timber (or engineered wood) buildings in the plan “misleading and unrealistic” from an architectural perspective, as others have noted. Sidewalk’s plan for a mass-timber plant, it added, “will undermine the emerging Ontario mass-timber industry which is providing employment to Indigenous peoples."
The Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation have lived in what is now Toronto for thousands of years, and Mr. Redbird noted that the rhetoric around revitalizing the waterfront ignores its long pre-industrial history. “We know how to engage the waterfront, and how to integrate it into our lives,” he said.
Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty said in an e-mail that the agency “has been clear that it expects project implementation to include an engagement plan that extends beyond formality or the legislated requirement to consult.”
Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the treaty holders of the land at the potential site, said in an e-mailed statement that the First Nation had engaged with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. “While we understand that no decision has yet been made regarding the project, we look forward to deep consultation going forward,” he wrote.
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