March 8, 2022

Placekeeping, righting relationships and an Indigenous reimagining of cities

By Evergreen

An interview with author and Civic-Indigenous toolkit writer Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook

Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook wears a lot of hats. She is currently the Director of Research & Programs for the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology and recently co-edited the book Sacred Civics: Building Seven Generation Cities with Jayne Engle and Julian Agyeman (May 2022). She teaches part-time at York University and advises on innovation, Indigenous engagement, environmental and mental wellness programs when time allows. 

Tanya was the Senior Indigenous Lead for Evergreen when she wrote the Civic-Indigenous Placekeeping and Partnership Building Toolkit, an output of the Indigenous Re-Imagining of Cities Project of Future Cities Canada. She remains connected to Evergreen as Associate on Civic-Indigenous Partnerships. You see, many hats. 

Tanya was the primary writer of the Toolkit. It is a compilation of teachings, case studies, tools, and approaches that draws on Indigenous perspectives and models of community engagement, placekeeping, city building, decolonial action and truth and reconciliation. The challenge of writing and compiling this robust resource cannot be understated. If we were to reimagine urban design, planning, infrastructures and systems to be more reflective of Indigenous peoples, perspectives, models and contributions, what would cities of the future look like? Perhaps this is how the toolkit grew to 169 pages. 

With all the crises and challenges in our worlds at personal and collective levels, it can feel dense and very oppressive a lot of the time. Such challenges and pain can also be fertile soil for deep reflection and learning.

Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook
Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook

When we connect via video call, Tanya’s bright smile dominates the screen. While she was the primary writer of the toolkit, she is the first to say that she is standing on the shoulders of many knowledge-keepers and practitioners who have done the work within their respective communities and urban contexts, and with whom she has either learned from or consulted. 

Evergreen: What sparked the idea for the toolkit?

Tanya: Since 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was released, there’s been such an upswell in interest and consciousness around Indigenous experiences, inclusion and leadership in civic spaces and workplaces. Working across different sectors including academia, non-profit, grassroots and government…when you’re one of the only staff with Indigenous ancestry and identity, you get asked a lot of times to talk about, educate and share resources on many things around Indigenous inclusion, engagement, decolonization, and truth and reconciliation. Indigenous professionals are often expected to straddle and create bridges across multiple Indigenous and settler worldviews and modes of practice while tirelessly educating, building awareness, and shifting cultural attitudes among staff and executive leadership, community, partners, program participants and wider society. These are unrealistic and unattainable expectations and objectives for anyone and can levy quite a lot of emotional labour onto Indigenous staff.

It is therefore important that senior executives and staff learn how to resource themselves and demonstrate their commitments to truth and reconciliation and workplace transformation by deepening their listening, learning, relationship-building, and supporting Indigenous peoples and priorities.  

I am someone who appreciates the interest of a person in expanding their awareness and consciousness, and actioning their learning through committed practice. I realized this [toolkit] was something really important to develop, at least some wayfinding…a guiding set of tools, resources, teachings, and case studies that could provide a starting point or expansion of their learning, deeper reflections, commitments and actions toward building understanding and more informed, reciprocal and intentional relationships with Indigenous peoples. Recognizing also, that people are at different points on their learning journey and their comfort levels, or even awareness of what they don’t know and organizational bias.

Evergreen: How do you hope this toolkit will be used to build better partnerships?

Tanya: In terms of high-level goals, it was intended to provide a model of learning, guidance, practical application for practitioners and organizations and municipalities. The toolkit encourages civic organizations and practitioners interested in building relationships and partnerships with Indigenous practitioners and communities to: genuinely and actively include community insights and worldviews; and defer to Indigenous knowledge and leadership regarding priorities, protocols and wise practices. There can be no genuine righting of relationships and transformative reconciliation with Indigenous peoples without an organization’s openness to: critical reflection and truth-telling; decolonizing employment practices, workplace culture and policies; and course-correcting around harmful systemic patterns that are often imperceptible because they have become so normalized.  

An example of a municipality’s long-term commitment to relationship-building guided by truth and reconciliation is that of Vancouver. Vancouver is the first city in Canada to create a task force toward implementing the UN (United Nations) Declaration on Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) as an integral aspect of its work on Indigenous relations and reconciliation within policy and across different municipal departments.

I realized this [toolkit] was something really important to develop, at least a baseline set of tools and resources, teachings, case studies that could help provide a bit of wayfinding for people…also recognizing that people are at different points on their learning journey and their comfort levels or even awareness of what they don’t know and organizational bias.

Evergreen: How can individuals, particular settlers, join the effort to decolonize their cities?

Tanya: The teachings and tools – informed and inspired by the stories and placekeeping, decolonial and community engagement work of many knowledge-keepers and practitioners  – provide the foundation of teachings and philosophies for what it means to be a good human first. And a good relative to the Earth. We need to repair and revitalize our relationships with the Earth herself and all other beings with whom we share this Earth.  

Toolkit resources like the Decolonizing from within an Organization tool remind us that the legacies and impacts of colonialism, are ongoing and perpetuated at some level, in some form, by all social institutions in our society. Civic leaders must commit to working both from within their organizations, and with Indigenous community to dismantle coloniality and decentre the dominant practices that have caused damage to the worlds of Indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, they can support a resurgence and deeper integration of Indigenous perspectives and practices by working alongside Indigenous practitioners to co-create spaces and opportunities that enable Indigenous Ppeoples to reclaim self-determination of the processes and expressions of place that reflect their identities and futures in urban centres.  

Evergreen: You also mention ‘transformative reconciliation” – what does this mean to you?

Tanya: Indigenous-settler relationships have never been based on Canada’s recognition of Indigenous nations as sovereign, equal partners so at minimum, transformative reconciliation is about settler society working to build strong and equitable relationships and shared understandings with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis partners as sovereign nations with inherent rights. It is also a committed, long-term process that entails settler institutions working together with Indigenous peoples to transform the values, institutions and systems that have perpetuated the damaging aspects of ongoing colonial relationships. Reconciliation must be based on a true relationship of reciprocity, as well a commitment to restoring lands, economic self-sufficiency, self-determination and self-government for Indigenous peoples. 

Evergreen: I’d like to ask you about your book. What does Sacred Civics mean?

Tanya: Cities are almost crackling with sacred animate energy and we need to have a lot of respect and dignity and reverence for our relationships with the Earth and all other beings, as well as places, ideas, and innovations. Each person has responsibilities as a member of that community. Thinking of it in an expansive way; members of the city, not just humans, the more than human, the land, water, are all members and residents of our civic communities. Stewardship and care-taking are recognized and valued. 

“Sacred civics” invites all residents, placekeepers and city builders to feel a deep sense of belonging and embodiment within cities, to work collectively with communities, Indigenous treaty and rights holders and civic institutions to shape cities and communities as life-centered places. Where reimagining what a city and civic, social and physical infrastructures can become is driven by the multiplicity of talents and gifts, imaginaries, priorities, and aspirations of local residents. Where we can be bold and brave, reinventing our cities and their integral components, aligned with and informed by the pluriverse worlds, stories and aspirations of the local residents who elevate cities to be their very best. 

Evergreen: How does hope or optimism influence your work? 

Tanya: It so much does, so much. With all the crises and challenges in our worlds at personal and collective levels, it can feel dense and very oppressive a lot of the time. Such challenges and pain can also be fertile soil for deep reflection and learning. In my writing, I also want to feel that light. That sense of possibility and hope. In my individual chapter in the book, I reference two iconic Indigenous prophecies from Turtle Island (the Anishinaabe Prophecy of the 7 Fires and Amazonian allegory of the Harpy eagle and the Condor. Cultural stories remind us that as much as we move through darkness it brings us to a time of light. The time of darkness is where a lot of learning and transitions toward positive transformation start to happen. Hope keeps us moving forward. I’m very much inspired by the courageous thinking and incredibly promising initiatives of my co-editors Jayne and Julian, and the many inspiring authors who contributed to the book. Unlocking and guiding what is possible in our cities and communities for the next seven generations [are] the Elders and the young people. My hope is that young people, in particular, will get inspired by the book and engage their gifts and energies to reimagine and build cities that are hubs of life, interconnectivity, radical inclusion, care and innovation for all. 

Sacred Civics: Building Seven Generation Cities edited by Jane Engle, Julian Agyeman and Tanya Chung-Tiam-Fook is available for order with Routledge.

This post was updated on May 30, 2023.

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