An elder who participated in an Indigenous consultation and the architect who helped organize it are accusing Sidewalk Labs of a “hollow and tokenistic” effort that completely ignored recommendations for its proposed Quayside development.
In an open letter to the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto, the agency in charge of developing the land, Duke Redbird and Calvin Brook said the company’s actions reinforce “a pattern of tokenism and insincere engagement of Indigenous peoples in the planning process.”
The letter adds that while none of the recommendations were adopted in Sidewalk Labs’ detailed master plan, “numerous references are made to Indigenous consultation and inclusion. This reveals a practice of manipulation which is unacceptable but foretelling of the type of relationship Torontonians can expect if Sidewalk Labs becomes a Waterfront Toronto partner.”
Sidewalk Labs hosted a one day Indigenous consultation workshop in November 2018, which made 14 recommendations and identified Indigenous design principles to guide the company’s master plan for Quayside, its proposed “smart city” development along Toronto’s eastern waterfront.
The recommendations ranged from embodying Indigenous history in gathering places across the site to supporting the creation of an Indigenous school and Indigenous education programs.
Redbird said none of those recommendations were incorporated into the company’s 1,500-page, four-volume master plan released in June, which provided the first detailed glimpse of the proposal for a “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront.
“It was just shocking that there was kind of a blatant disregard for all of the work that we did,” Redbird said. “They just wanted to check off a box that says, ‘We did Indigenous consultation.’”
Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have agreed on a Halloween deadline to address fundamental issues with the plan.
In a written statement, Sidewalk Labs said that the Indigenous workshop helped “inform” its plans, noting the project is still in “very early stages.”
“Beyond the scope of this particular workshop, we are also making commitments to work with Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and other Indigenous workforce agencies on skills training and job opportunities and include Indigenous suppliers in diverse procurement strategies,” spokesperson Keerthana Rang wrote.
“Sidewalk Labs is committed to engaging in ongoing conversations and collaboration with Indigenous stakeholder communities in Toronto, in particular with the treaty holders for the area, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.”
An Indigenous land acknowledgment appears on the first page of the first volume of the master plan. It includes references to outdoor temporary winter installations that “could” be designed by Indigenous artists at Silo Park; employment opportunities for low-income and racialized youth, women and Indigenous people; and five per cent of affordable housing units with priority to people with disabilities, families, veterans, youth, seniors, newcomers and Indigenous residents.
Redbird described those references as “trinkets,” and said they did not bring a true “Indigenous lens” to the project.
He noted that Indigenous people who were invited to the consultation had not asked to be involved, and that Indigenous people have a long history of broken promises.
“That doesn’t sound like reconciliation. That sounds like being given blankets and gun powder and whisky or something to trade for our participation,” he said.
“We’ve been down that road before.”
He also objected to Indigenous people being “categorized” as unemployed, and said the original idea was to see an Indigenous presence in the space, and to restore better public access to the waterfront.
“The water belongs to everybody or it should. Our idea was, let’s retrieve some of that as we used to know.”
Brook, whose design and planning firm organized the consultation, echoed Redbird’s criticism, calling Sidewalk Labs’ approach “manufactured endorsement.”
The word Indigenous is “kind of liberally sprinkled throughout the document, but the actual take up of anything specific is not there,” he said.
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“In this era of truth and reconciliation and nation to nation relationships I just think this kind of tokenistic approach to working with Indigenous people is really unacceptable.”
In a written statement, Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty said the organization has developed an evaluation framework to guide its assessment of the master plan if it moves along to the next stage.
“Waterfront Toronto has been clear that it expects project implementation to include an engagement plan that extends beyond formality or the legislated requirement to consult, and ensures meaningful engagement with Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and urban Indigenous communities,” he wrote.