Toronto is planning to create the country's first indigenous business and cultural district.
"It's a timely initiative considering the reconciliation efforts that are underway across the country," said city Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. She initiated the idea about six years ago because her ward has one of the city’s largest indigenous populations, up to 75,000 across Toronto.
"You can go through Little Portugal, you can go to Chinatown, you can go through Little Italy. You have these wonderful culturally diverse sections of Toronto. We don't have that type of space here for Canada's first peoples," said JP Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and an Ojibwe of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation.
"The idea is to create a space where independent business can come and flourish,” added Gladu, who is working with Wong-Tam and Chief Stacey Laforme of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation whose traditional territory the city of Toronto and beyond is built upon.
Chief Stacey Laforme of Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation and Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam at City Hall. (Photo: New Credit First Nation)
The district, which will likely combine street-level businesses, start-up incubators and a cultural gathering place, is widely supported but she says the holdup has been finding land.
"Indigenous people probably have the best sense of humour about this because the irony is not lost on them.”
Wong-Tam recently secured a site with over 13,000 sq. ft. at the downtown corner of Jarvis and Dundas streets. But the rest is to be determined, from timeline to cost to the name itself.
"I essentially said 'Whatever the name is, we will learn to pronounce it.'"
Toronto's Spadina Street displays a sign with its Anishinaabe name: Ishpadinaa. (Photo courtesy Ogimaa Mikana)
Laforme said, "Having a business district that also ties in the cultural aspects of things gives the indigenous people in Toronto an opportunity to showcase who they are and what they can accomplish."
Laforme believes it will also improve relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people. "The greatest thing that draws people together is finding commonalities," he said. "Having a district where it's open and welcoming, everyone will be happy to go there and learn a lot about each other.
"Having this type of district is also an opportunity for Toronto to be a leader," he added. "If we do this, and do it right, other cities across Canada, and maybe the world, can take this model on. Why can't every major city have an indigenous district?"
Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business president and CEO JP Gladu.
This indigenous business district comes on the heels of Toronto introducing indigenous names on street signs, Toronto schools acknowledging indigenous lands and plans to start hoisting the Mississaugas flag at City Hall.
"There's just so much racism right now in the country and I think it's a real opportunity to address the ignorance," Galdu said of these efforts.
"It's sometimes overwhelming. It warms my heart and make me feel like I matter. It makes indigenous people feel like they matter, that we are being taken seriously for a change, that there's energy and resources being sent our way in a way that is proactive and meaningful."
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