Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants Episode 6 – Appearances

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.

Duration: 17:42 minutes

Transcript

(soundbyte: Jeannette Fraser)
"When you look like I do— I don't look like anybody different— but at first it was 'Well, you never mentioned it. Are you sure you're one? How can you be? How can you know? Do you have a paper?' So that was the attitude that I first faced.”

(music: “Hoka” by Boogey The Beat)

Indigenous Perspectives. Stories from Indigenous public servants.

Tansi.

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: “Dance of the Hummingbird” – Greg Reiter)

No one would argue that racism isn't problematic. Its troubling pervasiveness, in what is an increasingly more educated society, is vexing. But worse still, is when we see the phenomenon become internalized by its victims, and perpetuated within their communities.

Colourism, shadeism, or, intra-racial colourism, is discrimination within communities of colour based on the varying pigment in skin. Those with darker skin can be regarded as less appealing or less refined, and excluded socially by peers. In experiencing prejudice from a member of their own race, individuals may even begin to believe themselves that they are inferior as a result of their colour. It may lead to self-stigma, depression and other mental health problems. It may be more damaging coming from one's own peer group because of the affiliation and the weight that carries to undermine one's core identity. It's an area where we need more research. If you're an academic in search of a study, this is important work.

I've witnessed this kind of ranking, not just in the world around me, but in my own home. My children are bi-racial, and I remember clearly the first time I entered a room and saw their sleeves pushed up past their elbows and their arms thrust forward side by side by side, as they compared their relative whiteness. I was horrified. And they, were unmoved. If anything, confused. Amused by my reaction. What's the problem, Dad?

I told them, at length, to no effect.

My teen, tween and pre-teen had somehow been indoctrinated by society to believe in something never witnessed in their own home. Something that their own parents' choice in a life partner should have inoculated them from. I thought I'd seen everything.

What I learned in talking to public servants in this series, is that it goes both ways. Not only can you be excluded for being too dark, you can be shunned for being too white.

And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants on appearances: The benefits of blending in, the sadness in being shut out, the uncertainty of feeling that you're in two worlds but belong to neither.

(flute: Greg Reiter)

ANDREA:
One of the things that your listeners aren't going to be able to tell about me is that I look very very Dutch. I look like my father's family. So my father's family is Dutch, my mother's family is First Nation.

FANNIE:
I have on both sides Indigenous family members far, far away, right? I also have white family members, so I would have to say that if you look at my percentage I'm probably not very high on the percentage scale of being an Indigenous person. But I feel appreciative of the fact that I do have some ancestors and I am part a descendent in some ways and I'd just rather try to connect to that a little bit then simply ignore it.

JEANNETTE:
And it was also, 'Are you sure you're one? How can you be? How can you know? Do you have a paper?' So that was the attitude that I first faced. It's different, but at first it was 'Well, you never mentioned it.' You know you would say it and then they would… It was okay, I guess, but when you look like I do… I don't look like anybody different. I don't dress differently.

FANNIE:
I do feel foolish especially because I when I joined the committee I joined the circle – the employees circle – from an awareness piece and to be part of the solution and they asked me if I didn't mind being the Atlantic rep because they didn't have – they needed two when they only had one. So I agreed but I almost feel foolish when my name shows up at the bottom of emails as being the representative for the Atlantic region because they don't look the part and I've never had the plight that the majority of the Indigenous community has had to face. It is an uncomfortable position to be in at times.

JEANNETTE:
But I just know things… and you bring them out slowly. Bit by bit, you share. But at first there is no real recognition – it was a question of proving, you know. And then we started the campaign or the Government started self-identification. I worked on that and I went around and asked people, “Did you self-identify? Did you self-identify? Did you put in who you were?” and that helped. Now it's different. I would say in the last six years that it has changed.

ANDREA:
I've definitely taken on a lot of the physical attributes of my father's family and I have used that to my advantage. So the fact that I look white but I'm actually Indigenous I take that with me into meetings. So you can understand where it is that people are truly coming from in terms of biases or misunderstandings, prejudices and that sort of thing. And I just I break out my Indigenous-ness when it suits me. So that's… my mom calls it 'an Indian in white person camouflage' which I think is hilarious.

TODD:
It really makes me wonder what does it really mean to be an Indigenous person?

FANNIE:
I don't know that it's well-defined with regards to the organization. They really just ask you to self-identify but they really don't define what it should be. If you apply for a process and you self-identify as an Indigenous employee in many cases they will ask you to sign a declaration or an oath that you are in fact an Indigenous employee. I want to define as a non-status Aboriginal or Indigenous person. My uncles all have their cards. I look at the representative needs of the organization and I don't want to take the spor of someone that may be more deserving than me. At the same time I consider myself Acadian because I have Acadian descent and in the same way I still want to recognize my roots. I mean, I can trace my genealogy back to the family that signed the Treaty of Sovereignty so I find that something special and I want to acknowledge it. Just because I've been arm's length from all of this all my life doesn't mean that I don't want to sort of plug back in and bring that to my children and hopefully the generations to come.

JEANNETTE:
Yes absolutely. There's blonde-haired blue-eyed Metis. And did you notice in the missing women, if they're pale blonde they get more attention than the ones that are dark and not as attractive. It's subtle discrimination but you don't go like features. You just know in your soul and your heart who you are. I can't be anything else but who I am. I know not everything about my family history but some family history and I don't have a piece of paper. I don't need a paper. I don't need a sign that says “I am”. I know.

FANNIE:
But I do feel like I don't have any spot to be in terms of being in the right place because I may appear too white and my culture and my lifestyle is not Indigenous enough. At the time I want to be recognizing my roots and I want to be part of the solution, so I raised my hand but I still feel kind of… like it may be inappropriate at times or seen as inappropriate that I actually would use that title for myself.

ANDREA:
My experience is very different. I grew up off-reserve. I am bi-cultural so I have one foot and one culture and one foot another which gives me an interesting perspective on things. I've had an interesting upbringing. I've gotten to see prejudice and racism from essentially behind enemy lines, which is fascinating from like a social kind of point of view. But it's put me in a place where I'm not 100 percent accepted by either community. So that's a weird thing to reconcile.

FANNIE:
At one point I joined a variety of groups on Facebook and there was a local debate because a doctor in the Campbellton area had taken a sticker from a basket of stickers and given it to an Indigenous child. And it was a sticker from the movie 'Home' where there's an alien that greets humans and calls them 'savages' and on this sticker it said 'Greetings, Savage!' or 'Savages' and it created this big uproar. And when I tried to chime in I was told on their Facebook group that I was diluted and that I should be quiet. And then when I raised my hand to participate in the Aboriginal Development Program, a mentorship program, at one point my boss at the time had asked me if I truly self-identified as an Aboriginal or Indigenous person and asked if I did not feel that it had diluted over the years. So, in a sense, like I said no matter where I go from those seen as inappropriate that I identify myself this way. I do identify myself as a white woman but I also identify myself as a descendant of the native tribe that signed the Treaty of Sovereignty. So, that was an interesting finding for me when I looked into it and it's something that I still cherish even though I've known I've really been arm's length from all of it all my life.

JEANNETTE:
We just do our work. We just know who we are, and that's any First Nation no matter what nation no matter where they're from. And the Metis, no matter. We just know in our heart and our soul – that's who we are. We belong to this land. We're of it, with it, for it. We're the land. We've been here.

TODD:
So what do you tell yourself every time you start to have these doubts or someone says something negative, that keeps you engaged in being a good representative for the interests of your region.

FANNIE:
I always try to focus on the greater good and I look at it as, well, what's the alternative? If the alternative is that I stay in the shadows then I can't really be part of the solution as much as I think the cause merits.

ANDREA:
It puts you in a place where you often have to… where you often have to justify to either other Indigenous employees or non-Indigenous employees like why you have the job that you have. There's this perception that my Indigenous-ness – this is what got me the opportunities that I have. So it's an interesting challenge. I still think that there's a lot of work that we need to do in terms of awareness and education with the federal public service and Canadians generally. But if I can get to a point where I don't feel like I'm being unnecessarily judged by my culture I think that's kind of reconciliation. Because we've kind of let go of all of those biases and prejudices that we might have been programmed with from a young age.

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, Andrea Dykstra, and Jeannette Fraser.

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

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

Thank you for listening.

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