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Doug Anderson (Bungee Métis) is the creative and strategic director at Invert Media and has consulted on Indigenous education and community development across Canada. Alexandra Flynn is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law.

Indigenous nations have been located in what are now Canadian cities from time immemorial. But while half of all Indigenous peoples in Canada live in urban areas today, efforts to develop relations between Indigenous peoples and Canadian political authorities tend to focus more on provincial and federal governments.

There is an urgent need to review, clarify and deepen Indigenous-municipal relationships across Canada, and for municipalities to rethink their approaches to governance in light of Indigenous laws, rights and responsibilities.

We know that these relationships matter. Several recommendations from the 1996 Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples address the Indigenous-municipal relationship, as does the 2007 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the 2014 Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In response, municipalities have introduced governance changes. Various municipalities have created an Indigenous affairs office at senior levels within their bureaucracies, started an Indigenous advisory council to offer advice on policies and initiatives, or mandated cultural competency training for civic employees. Many have also endorsed the TRC Calls to Action, and endorsed or adopted UNDRIP.

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These changes are welcome, but challenges remain. Not all municipalities that have recognized UNDRIP have taken meaningful action toward its implementation. This can strain relations with Indigenous partners and leaves open the question of how deeply committed municipalities are to forging reciprocal, respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, particularly in relation to distinct Indigenous ways of framing human responsibilities and rights.

There remain disagreements over what obligations municipalities owe to First Nations. This is especially true in relation to “the duty to consult,” a responsibility that arises when government considers an action, such as land development or the extraction of resources, that may affect First Nations.

There has been significant discussion recently over whether municipalities are a Crown, with a duty to consult, as the provinces and federal government are. Numerous court cases have argued that the duty does not extend to municipalities. At the same time, some provinces, including Ontario and Saskatchewan, have explicitly or implicitly delegated the duty to municipalities. This leaves Indigenous communities caught in a cat-and-mouse game of whether municipalities must exercise this duty.

The duty to consult, however, is an inadequate framework to ground the Indigenous-municipal relationship, as it typically concerns lands and resources that affect a specific First Nation. Municipalities host a diverse population of Indigenous peoples, some with reserves on or adjacent to local lands, or with treaty rights. The duty to consult also assumes a singular “First Nation” that can make decisions on behalf of a particular group of people. This does not reflect the makeup of many urban Indigenous populations, which may have political communities distinct from on-reserve Indigenous governments.

What, then, should municipalities be doing to improve Indigenous-municipal relations? Our recent paper for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance outlines some possibilities.

Municipalities must acknowledge their obligations to Indigenous peoples by creating mutually beneficial, respectful relationships that recognize and endorse Indigenous rights and responsibilities. This is preferable to a one-sided consultative model where governments are the ultimate decision maker and merely consider the views of Indigenous peoples. Relationships can express themselves in many forms, but municipal governments must listen and learn from First Nations and Indigenous peoples, including their laws and governance practices.

Municipalities cannot replace the nation-to-nation relationships that Indigenous peoples have with the Crown, but they can implement UNDRIP’s articles so that it is possible, for example, for the practice and revitalization of cultural traditions and customs to take place without interference from municipal bylaws.

Municipalities can also fund joint economic development planning, increase Indigenous representation on governing bodies, and enter into more collaborative and beneficial protocols and agreements with First Nations on lands bordering municipal boundaries, as well with Indigenous peoples living in cities.

Municipalities are often the political entity closest to urban Indigenous peoples. They are neighbours and, ideally, friends sharing diverse community contexts. As a result, they are perhaps best positioned to exemplify and deepen what it means to uphold the honour of the Crown, in ways that would be harder for more remote Canadian provincial and federal governments to realize.

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