Episode 2 - Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants

The ESDC Indigenous Perspectives podcasts explore being Indigenous in the Public Service, what reconciliation is for individuals, and what it can be for Canada. In their own words, public servants give voice to diverse experiences - and struggles - around what it means to be Indigenous: from being firmly rooted in community, to living in two worlds but belonging in neither. Discussions about the legacies of history, the role of culture in the workplace, and how to move forward on reconciliation shed light on the varied factors that motivate Indigenous people to join, and stay, in the Public Service.

Duration: 37:39 minutes


(soundbyte: Don Bilodeau)
“Public servants have an opportunity to recognize the history of Indigenous people in Canada and to build that knowledge and respect into the work they do.”

(music: “Hoka” by Boogey The Beat)
Indigenous Perspectives. Stories from Indigenous public servants.


This is Indigenous Perspectives, a program where we hope to explore the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous public servants, what reconciliation means to them, and what it can be for Canada.

(music: “Sprit of Indians” - Andrea Barone)

Look at any report, any study, any list ranking the countries of the world and their respective desirability, and you'll find Canada at or near the top

The International Civil Service Effectiveness index; The Global Peace Index; The Social Progress Index; OECD's rankings of Health, Gender Inequality and Social Inequality; The Economist Intelligence Unit's “liveability ranking” report; Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index; even US News and World Report has to give it up for Canada in their Overall Best Countries Ranking

And why not? We're geographically massive, resource rich, economically and politically stable. We have universal health care, gun control, low crime, and very good self-esteem.

And yet, in spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, Canada is a dangerous place. Not for how the majority of us live, but, how we think.

When you're constantly bombarded with praise and accolades about how wondrous and prosperous your country is, and are never confronted with any evidence to the contrary, it's easy to become complacent, and not even consider the possibility that the reports are wrong. Or in the very least incomplete.

Canadian Journalist Terry Glavin asks us to think of prosperity differently, and that is, to always judge a society based on the state of it's most disadvantaged citizens. For those citizens, Canada is a very dangerous place.

He writes: “roughly a third of [Indigenous] people are on welfare or some other form of income assistance.

“A mere four per cent of Canadians are [Indigenous], but more than 23 per cent of the inmate population in federal institutions are [Indigenous] people – an incarceration rate 10 times higher than among non-[Indigenous] people.

“On reserves, 74 per cent of schools are so dilapidated they lack such basic amenities as drinking water. More than half the schools function without a library, a gymnasium, a science laboratory, or a kitchen.

“Of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million [Indigenous] people, about half are under 15 years of age.
Canadian Journalist Scott Gilmore concurs:

He writes: “By almost every measurable indicator, the [Indigenous] population in Canada is treated worse and lives with more hardship than the African-American population [in the United States].

“49 per cent of First Nations members live on remote reserves. Those who do live in urban centres are mostly confined to a few cities in the Prairies.

“Our racial problems are literally over the horizon, out of sight and out of mind.

And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants on a completely open question. What is it about you, your community or your culture that you want others to know.

(flute: Greg Reiter)

Is there anything you wish that your colleagues knew or understood better about you or about your culture?

Well, I think it's happening. If you asked this question three years ago I might have said I wish some of the myths could be broken. I wish that story could be known around the cumulative effects on Indigenous nations across the country, whether it was the presence of an industrial commercial private company, a mining company, or whether it was the impact the cumulative effects of Alberta with oil sands. And so I think it's been recognized in the displacement of people into the reserve system and residential school in the Sixties Scoop and the lousy water and the education issues and that suicide rate and, you know, the list goes on. Those are not new. Absolutely not new. And yet, there's a fair number of Canadians who were doing a double take when they hear these things. This past summer I was part of a group that was consulted in the development of the new Mìwàte Chaudière Falls Illumination. Some of our singers participated in the recordings that people heard there. We got to write what was presented on the placards on the site which is telling our story through our language. So on our oral tradition and not having non-Indigenous people tell our story or describe us. So things are changing. And so, a few years ago my answer would have been different than today.

We have survived 150 plus years in Confederation and in so many cases have thrived: contributed to the country, contributed to culture, contributed to the economy. So, a lot of people would simply say, “OK. Reconciliation. Fine, it's your move.” People have been working without official government support on reconciliation, on improving well-being, on strengthening communities. They've been doing it for years. We have been doing it for years. Ultimately reconciliation comes down to whether Indigenous people in Canada can feel safe to be themselves wherever they are. And that sounds very simplistic but it catches a whole range of things. Obviously, it captures things like social conditions and quality of programs and services in communities, the recognition of rights, the recognition of self-government, recognition of land rights and so on for different communities, recognition of treaty rights. But for the many Indigenous people who live a largely, mostly, partly, sometimes urban life or a mixed life like me – they have connections to a community but they're mostly in a city or they're moving between one part of the country and the other whether for work or for family or or whatever it is, accessing services, you know, having a job, living a life in different parts of the country – can they feel safe? There was a really devastating report that was done, I think it was done it out of Toronto called 'First Peoples, Second Class Care' and it documented incidences where Indigenous people encountered racism while accessing health care. And there was also a horrible story in Winnipeg where an Indigenous man went to an emergency room and the triage people basically thought that he was homeless and drunken and basically left him there. But he was an amputee, he had a catheter, he had an infection and he needed urgent attention. They left and he died in the ER. It was a long time ago. There was a series of inquiries around that.

One thing I continuously say is we need to define Aboriginal or Indigenous continuously in policy development, program development, and that's reflective of defining First Nations, Inuit, Metis, so that Inuit aren't always lumped into one Aboriginal umbrella. In terms of political accords, yes, there's an Inuit to Crown relationship, government to government relationship with the Metis that they're moving towards, and as well as nation to nation with First Nations. So, there's the political recognition of the three groups, but I find there could be improvements on how we define and track the usage of the term Aboriginal or Indigenous. It should always be defined because I know am continuously providing definitions as to who we are or where they reside. Because to me it almost seems easier for external work colleagues to just say Aboriginal / Indigenous. They're all the same. But, in fact, they have different cultures, different languages, different priorities, different solutions to address their priorities, different challenges, different geographic areas. Nunavut is only accessible by air for example. There's 53 communities, Inuit communities, in the country covering 40 percent of Canada's landmass. So, they're very different in terms of their Aboriginal groups. So, that's one area of improvement that I'd really like to see in terms of the definition. Even the way we track Aboriginal employment statistics as a department is under Aboriginal. It's not defined that's part of Treasury Board guidelines or policies. So, even tracking purposes, we're not in a position yet where we can fully track how many are Inuit, how many are First Nations or Metis – it's lumped into one and I think that's a bit of a challenge when we're always using the term, one term, to define all people. So, I'm finding myself continuously educating. And even in the short term there's DG-level EX-3, I think, one used to always use 'Aboriginal' but over the last since we've been working together, over the last few months, he now defines Aboriginal, continuously. So it does start from that level too and trickles down to all employees. So, it's a complicated response because it's two-fold, right? There's the perception that all Aboriginals are the same and sometimes that perception isn't clearly defined in policy direction or program direction. So, I think we just need to do a little bit of a better job on defining who these Aboriginal Indigenous people are.

So my wish now is that people embrace the opportunity for dialogue and take action. The Reconciliation Commission called for Canadians to take action, and to learn more, to connect. And I know I've seen that personally. I travelled with a group of paddlers between Kingston and Ottawa on the water, arriving in Ottawa on July 1st, with a view – and I spoke to them all the way along the journey – that we weren't celebrating 150 years of anything for us. We've been here a long time but we certainly recognize Canada's celebration and that opened the conversation to a lot of people expressing deep… Some of them were deeply affected by and troubled by hearing or learning of the truth. So, when you get into truth and reconciliation that that's a two way street. And I think that now it's presented to us and it's possible. So, I think the opportunity… my wish is that people start talking more about it. And it's not from a position of people feeling necessarily, it's acknowledgement of the impact and it's now our time and our culture to embrace that and to take the steps we need to take to heal and move forward. But there's a few obstacles. But you know even that even the Commission on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, those are those are steps in the right direction but there still will be a lot more work and there's still a lot of words not a whole lot of action yet. I'm hoping and I'm hopeful that the momentum won't be lost on that file.

In my department I'm doing okay here because I take the time to do informal sessions when I need to. I already know that when the new staff come in I am going to spend a few minutes with them to orient them more. I'm okay to do that. And I also reviewed the documents relating to any of the Inuit files so I have an input onto that.

Well you know what, I'll tell you. When it comes to Indigenous people, there's a very small community in Canada. Everybody knows everybody. So, you know, when we look at our department, you know, it's one of the biggest departments but yet every Aboriginal person knows everybody. And we know when somebody is new and we welcome them and we encourage them to come to the different committees and we bring them to the Kumik Lodge to make sure that they're connected with the Elders, you know, and they can have one on one meetings with the Elders if they ever experience frustration. And, you know, I know many of the Elders, being in the department for a long time, right across Canada and one from the United States, or two of them from the United States. And I talk to these Elders and I ask them, you know, what's the most biggest issue that you always hear from the staff that come and see you. And they said, they also complain about their managers. They always complain about how they're impacted negatively in the department, you know, for various reasons. But I feel really sad to hear that we have a lot of work to do still in terms of, you know, raising awareness about Indigenous people and their history, and, you know, why they are the way they are, the result from Indian Residential School. Inter-generational syndrome, I guess you can call it. So, we all do know each other very well. We all know what station we come from. We all know each other's differences and we all respect each other. We all have really good debates. I remember we're yelling but it doesn't mean we're disrespecting each other, but we just need to make a point and we need to make it very strongly sometimes. But you know in the end, because we respect each other, we get even closer together because we know each other better now because we feel safe. Open debates to say whatever we want to say, but in a respectful way following our seven traditional laws which vary from nation to nation. But they're all basically the same.

I mentioned being on that paddling journey with 130 people. I was the only Indigenous person there and I was actually representing my Chief of Council because there was a request for that. And we left Kingston which is not traditional Algonquin territory and then when we hit Merrickville I spoke to 200 people to a standing ovation. I talked about you know it's still the next 150 years. I mean, yes, it's important to recognize where we came from and the pain and the gaps that need to be closed and the scars. But that's fine. Let's build the next 150 years. Those people throughout that week of paddling, many of them came to me and some of them in tears and some of them just wanted to say 'I'm sorry' to somebody Indigenous. I mean I didn't feel any pain but my ancestors did, like my grandparents. But I think giving people an opportunity to do what that person did is good. But it's also good to give your employees the organization the same opportunity to say or to declare they didn't know better or they'd like to know more or they'd like to feel they can do something positive: understanding better through blanket ceremonies, the history, or just having town halls and open discussions or myth-busting sessions or whatever. You know, I get the 'tax' question all the time. But yes I think it's a great doing these sorts of things. They are helpful and we don't want to make it too … keep it organic.

It was a strange circumstance where I actually got into it a little bit with these Indigenous scholars working in a combination of academic settings or community settings, criticizing a couple of junior bureaucrats for tweeting out a picture of one or their brainstorming sessions with one of the Canada Beyond 150 groups. Working on reconciliation. These guys they were they were just getting together and brainstorming on what they need to do to learn about Indigenous issues so they can work on their project. So they had they done a Post-It brainstorm session and put the Post-Its up on the wall. They took a picture of the Post-Its and tweeted them out. They were basic questions about: can we visit a community? Someone wrote the word 'Reservation' instead of Reserve or First Nation or Community. I guess they might have been American or came from a background where they had their exposure to Indigenous issues was more from an American bent. For those who don't know, in the United States people talk in terms of reservations more than up here in Canada where we talk more in terms of Communities or First Nations or Inuit traditional lands or what have you. The nomenclature is a little bit different than the States, so someone used that language on one of the Post-Its, who happened… I don't know how it ended up in their feed but they saw. “Oh my God. Listen, here's the federal public service working on reconciliation in the year 2017. This is embarrassing,” and they went on a thread. And, I said, “Guys…” I basically said that these are kids in a training program talking about what they need to do to learn. Don't make them an example of everything that's wrong with the Government of Canada. It's not really that, you know, it's kids in a training session asking questions. And then they got into it with me a little bit because I was too forgiving and patient for them, allowing their ignorance or lack of knowledge about something to kind of slip through. And this type of thing happens sometimes. It actually can become a point of friction between the circles as far as people working within government and people working on the outside in more of an advocacy role or a critical role of government. And that's totally understandable. I saw this firsthand with some of my mother's work. After working on the Royal Commission, she worked on a number of projects in education and economic development with different communities and so she developed relationships in that way and also with government in more of an advocacy role. So, she was on different sides of that equation at different points in her life and career. So it is not surprising to me. I really do wish there is a way to have those conversations in a healthier way. I ended off with them and said, “Look, if you have issues, raise them with them, don't subtweet them” and the guy wrote back said, “Oh, you're right. I won't subtweet them. I'll confront them.” I don't know what happened. Hopefully I think the guy might have followed up with them on e-mail or a Twitter message or something. Hopefully something good comes out of it.

I think providing people the space to… I think people should have the space to declare their ignorance. My wife is a great example of that, and who is now a proponent of it all, who is now here responding to people's' comments. She did not know all that she knows now and has learned. People are becoming much more aware. When our Chief – I don't know if you watched the Grey Cup game – but when he welcomed people to our territory and then made the link between the Argonauts and Mississaugas and Calgary with the Blackfoot. But I listened to the crowd response to that comment and we could tell that people – and he announcer who we were and where they were from – and he announced the territory. He got a positive cheer. Five years ago, he probably wouldn't have been on the field but it wouldn't have made any difference and it might even been have been greeted with Boos. So you know I think things are changing and I think it's time for everyone to kind of say, “OK, there's a reason for this.”

I have two kids, 24 and 18, so I was the typical young Inuk mom, but very proud of it. And one thing that my daughter hears because she's also a federal public servant, she hears a lot from her colleagues and even when she was going to Carleton here and not back in the day people were afraid to declare or admit quote unquote that they were Aboriginal or First Nations or Native, Inuit in some areas or maybe Metis. So that perception apparently still lies in some of the First Nations, Inuit, Metis being I guess afraid to declare their ancestry. But to me – and I've always instilled it with my kids even though they have a white quallunnaq Italian father – is that Inuit are very proud Canadians and we've never hid the fact that we're Inuit. So my dad's quallunnaq as well, being born and raised in Iqaluit. I've always been first so I can't always relate to others who say I was ashamed or scared to admit I was Native or Aboriginal or First Nations or Metis. So that's one message that I'll share with you is that Inuit are a very proud people and for the most part very willing to to work with with all levels of government, all levels of organisations, very humble people, quiet. One of the jokes we say, too, is for the Nunavut land claim agreement which was ratified in 1993, which happened to be the year my daughter was born and then 1999 which happened to be the year my son was born. So, I like to say I plan my pregnancies around the land claim agreement. My dad wasn't too happy about the first part, but anyway. Even throughout the 30 years – it took 30 years to negotiate the ratification of the Nunavut agreement – and it was done in good faith on the Inuit part, it took 30 years. But you know we're a patient people; we're a humble people; we're a proud people. Despite some of the social indicators that are against us, it's very good to be Inuk and I can never fully understand why people would want to hide that. I kind of understand, of course, like, the perception of what I said earlier, that we're there, we're looked down upon, and not to say Inuit didn't go through it because Inuit were looked down upon, too, by government policies. But generally at the end of the day I am really proud to say that it's always been good to be Inuk and it continues to be good to be Inuk. I practice my Inukness at home even if I'm far away from Nunavut. We get up there, my kids eat the raw meat, raw caribou, raw seal eyes, culture, family.. So, the proudness around the people from the four Inuit regions is very much alive.

I think what I might add: I dealt with science. I came from Environment, as you know, dealing with some of the science communities and they haven't got the first clue about how to approach a community and etcetera. But I think that the thing that I can say that I observed the most is a sort of an ethnocentric assumption that everybody should work. Everybody wants to work. Everybody wants to have a job. Nine to five. So we kind of apply that work mentality to the culture and it's not that it's wrong to apply that. I mean, I followed that approach and taught my children to do the same. And now I live in the community and I was meeting with some private sector organizations about establishing a partnership agreement with them on certain projects that are occurring in the territory. And one of my colleagues, you know, when asked about what the company was committing to hire, you know, and the answer we gave them was, “Well, let us know in what regard, but everyone who wants to work is working in our community.” And I thought it was interesting because everyone who wants to work is working and then are the others, who for whatever reason, and there's a whole host, a microcosm of society there. But there are people who simply want to, and I think sometimes those stereotypes get painted across the entire culture or not depending on your [inaudible]. But I think as a public servant it would be important to not be overly, I guess, ethnocentric in the belief or view we are always right. And I think we have to step back and see things sometimes in grey because it's just not black or white. Those are things that are hard to swallow, right? So, I think it's important. I think with any culture to understand you're not necessarily right. And the sooner we recognize that and understand why we see things differently, the better. And that doesn't mean we can't find a common ground. It just means we're not the same and that would be something I would hope that people kind of embrace. That's probably the rule for any kind of relationship.

One last thought. It's something that I learned. Just a little concrete example of something that I learned as part of my support and participation in the Indigenous Employees Circle. It's the fact that I did not know why we changed from using 'Aboriginal' to using 'Indigenous Peoples' and sometimes in the government there's often name changes and it feels like the flavour of the month. But in this case I thought it was really important and something that I'd like to share and hopefully inspire others to not only understand and use the proper terminology but maybe join the community as well, or, if they have a community in their own their own department, simply because you do learn a lot and it does change your perspective and your approach to things. But I understood that 'Aboriginal' when you break it down the etymology of the word means 'not original' and in a sense I can understand why that can be seen as very insulting to be not only called not originals but to all be lumped up into this big generic lump of people without recognizing all the varieties that exist in the Indigenous peoples. So, looking at Indigenous peoples it's a more appropriate term that gives Indigenous comes from the Latin word 'indigenus' which means 'sprung from the land' or 'native' which is more closely linked to 'original', and then 'peoples' really gives that opportunity to give a face and a style and a name to the variety of tribes that exist in each region. A very important and useful fact that you learn when you participate and it does, in fact, change your speech and your commitment to avoiding accidental micro-aggressions. And to be more careful from an inclusion and diversity perspective.

I've never actually heard the term micro-aggressions before. Can you give me some examples of how that enters into our daily living?

Micro-aggressions is a term I learned recently because there was, from my understanding, an assistant deputy minister or someone that was going to do an Armchair Discussion on it. I heard about it because I had brought up the example where I was asked if I was too diluted to participate in an Indigenous Development Program and so I think other examples of micro-aggressions are, for example, using the term Aboriginal instead of Indigenous, failing to acknowledge the land that you're on when you're doing a formal event, using terms like 'Indian giver' for example. Those are things that cause harm or can reasonably cause injury even if you might not have meant it that way. So it's not a you know a direct aggression but it is still in a sense an aggression on a micro scale, It's something that that does not contribute to healing or reconciliation but it contributes to causing a bit of harm in a way.

Public servants have an opportunity to recognize the history of Indigenous people in Canada and to build that knowledge and respect into the work that they do. I am sitting on an advisory… an executive Indigenous advisory council with the Canada School right now, developing the curriculum for folks like you. I'm starting with deputies down and what I really hope there is that people understand with a little greater comfort, the Indigenous history, the Indigenous culture, and you know to some degree an Indigenous way of thinking. So I think that when we are shaping policy, when we're dealing with challenges of the daily work in the new department whether it's science focused or social focused or globally focused or operationally focused, that you know maybe adding a lens that they've learned through their teaching with Canada's School or their interaction with Indigenous communities or culture that they can apply some of those to the thinking because I mean there are differences. And I think there would be an advantage to having public servants all kind of take that approach to the way we deal with one another internally or externally. I think that there's an opportunity there. Embrace the learning and the teachings that are offered to the Canada School. Get to know communities, you know, across the board. I mean not all public servants are sitting in the NCR and I know that probably the regional footprint is quite large and spread out and I think that it would be to everyone's advantage to feel comfortable with the neighbouring First Nations communities near the workplace and, if not, go find them. And I think it's be important to recognize how to become informed, to take that challenge, to become informed about the communities that they're dealing with. I always said I would seek first to understand and then to be understood and I think understanding the environment around the public servant is important so that they can be understood whenever they're doing their job or to contribute things in a better way for success. I also would hope that public servants at all levels… I want them to adopt the motto of “You first” when it came to the training on the Indigenous space. The answer suggests that an employee would not attend the training until their superior had, and that goes all the way up the line. Too often we've asked people to take on required learning, the tickey box, but the managers or leaders at all levels of leadership don't go. And we unfortunately give in to them and give people the responsibility to act when we are not able to support them because either those people haven't taken the training, or they don't have the same understanding, or it's not a priority. So I feel that it's important that everybody gets the same exposure. And I think people can build that into learning plans, they can build it into their work and build it into their performance management plans, on how they achieve the training, the behaviours in support of growth and the spirit of reconciliation.

Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants is a production of Employment and Social Development Canada

All opinions expressed on Indigenous Perspectives are strictly those of the individual and are not necessarily those of their employer.

Public servants featured in this episode were Fannie Bernard, Don Bilodeau, Daniel Jette, Tooneejoulee Kootoo-Chiarello, Pamela Kupeuna and Leesie Naqitarvik.

Our main title music is by Boogey the Beat, with additional music provided by Andrea Barone and Greg Reiter.

I'm Todd Lyons, host, writer, and technical producer for this series.

Thank you for listening.


Download (MP3, 20.2 MB) Episode 2 - Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: