An inspiring push for social justice in Ontario’s North

In 2017, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched a project to identify and remove barriers that keep underrepresented groups — particularly urban Indigenous, racialized, and new Canadian women — out of municipal politics.

Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton, London and Sioux Lookout piloted the project, called “Diverse Voices for Change.” Following research and community engagement in these areas, a national toolkit will be prepared in the coming months to assist more municipalities with strategies to address the identified barriers to access, while cultivating a richer culture of inclusion in Canadian municipal politics.

I joined women from the Sioux Lookout community last week in discussions surrounding the results of the project thus far, and the bold initiatives to follow.

It was a moving experience.

Indigenous elders and community leaders shared personal stories of intergenerational trauma, and the slow healing process that’s come through reconciliation efforts. There were discussions about needs for more local mental health supports and better supports for survivors of sexual violence.

Tana Troniak, executive director of First Step Women’s Shelter, and Joyce Timpson, long-time city councillor, shared powerful stories behind the decades-long battle to provide the necessary wrap-around supports for women and families taking the first steps to breaking the cycle of domestic violence. Troniak spoke passionately of her own personal experience and shared her fierce vision to expand services for sexual violence survivors in the region.

As Ontario rolls out the $242-million strategy to combat sexual and domestic violence, I hope the unique challenges faced by northern communities providing these supports regionally will be carefully considered in the funding distribution.

What struck me most on this visit was the compassion and understanding shown by local community members who open their hearts and homes to those from fly-in communities north of the hub.

Yolaine Kirlew, councillor and deputy mayor for the municipality of Sioux Lookout, served as the host for the Diverse Voices for Change symposium. Alongside her husband and three young daughters, she houses and supports between 6 and 13 students per year from fly-in communities in need of local accommodations to attend high school. Kirlew has spent over 10 years in Sioux Lookout advocating for the changes necessary to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of her community.

Most recently, she advocated for and won local transportation funding for federally funded Indigenous students. Previously, the funding formula did not factor transportation beyond flying them from their communities to Sioux Lookout.

“It was a big change, a victory in levelling the playing field. Now access is there and choices can be made.”

Her husband, Dr. Mike Kirlew delivered an impassioned tour of the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre. The hospital, while beautiful in structure, tells a devastating story of the inequities within our health-care system, demonstrated by those falling through gaps left by overlapping services between provincial and federal jurisdictions.

In an interview with the CBC last month, Dr. Kirlew spoke of his continued advocacy for improvements to health-care delivery to northern communities through the hub of Sioux Lookout, “The system isn’t broken, the system is doing what it was originally designed to do . . . It was never meant to provide care. It was meant to deny care.”

The local commitment to improving public institutions in Sioux Lookout, and addressing systemic racism, whether in health care, education or housing, is inspiring. But reinforcements are needed.

The tightly knit communities within Sioux Lookout exemplify the spirit of what it means to be Canadian. To support each other and care for one another through the unique challenges we each face, while advocating for transformational improvements to systems that are failing some of us.

If you haven’t had an opportunity to see this beautiful corner of our province, it’s worth a visit. And if you’re a young professional looking for opportunities — or you know someone who is — this is a community where you can maximize your impact.

After a mere 24 hours in Sioux Lookout, I fell in love with the passion of the local leaders to touch and improve as many lives as possible. I think you will too.

Tiffany Gooch is a Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(Published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, April 8, 2018)