Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants Episode 7 – Realities

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: 26:04 minutes


(soundbyte: Andrea Dykstra)
"Because I had the heavy duty involvement in my community and with various advocacy organizations, I was looked at as essentially sleeping with the enemy.”

(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: “Dark Dance” – Cris Derksen)

Cindy Blackstock, professor of social work at McGill University, has devoted over 25 years of her life to child protection and Indigenous children’s rights.

She's shared a lot of wisdom in many journal articles and interviews: more than I could recite in their entirety. But I gathered some of my favourites quotes to share with you to illustrate her dream for the future.

She said:

“I really believe that the greatness of the country and of our joint society … is bound up in the possibility of raising a generation of First Nations who never have to recover from their childhoods, and a group of non-Indigenous children who never have to say they're sorry.

“There’s a famous study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study […] which showed that when children have multiple experiences of harm – it could be a child who is in a home where there are multi-generational effects of residential schools, where there is poverty, where there is no clean drinking water as is the case in 1 in 6 First Nations communities, and where they’re going to a lousy school – if you add up all those things, those experiences are going to play out well through their adulthood. In fact, it even puts them at higher risk for things like coronary disease and diabetes.

“The seeds we plant in childhood have lifelong consequences. If we plant seeds of discrimination then we set in play a strong likelihood of a tragic and difficult adulthood. But if we plant seeds of justice and equality and culture that breeds self-confidence, we’re going to see those same positive experiences grow throughout their lives.

“What I don’t want to see is another generation of First Nations adults having to recover from their childhoods as so many survivors of the residential schools have had to do, and as so many families of the murdered and missing women are now doing.

“As a country we need to do better than continuing this longstanding pattern of discrimination against First Nations children, young people and their families. They deserve equality going forward.

“Reconciliation to me is about not having to say sorry a second time.”

And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants about their experiences of the realities of being an Indigenous person.

(flute: Greg Reiter)

What does it mean to be an Indigenous employee in the workplace? What are the realities that you see that maybe other people aren't aware of?

At first it wasn't recognized. Fifteen years ago when I started I had mentioned it to my manager and it was sort of… nothing. I may have well have been a piece of the furniture. So that was the attitude that I first faced. I don't have that anymore, I'm very well recognized. I received the Deputy Ministers – for EDSC – Award, for my work. It's different. Very very different.

Well anybody that works in the public service is going to tell you that it's a great job, but it's pretty frustrating. There's a lot of indecision in general and a lot of decision by committee. I find being an Aboriginal doesn't affect too much of my job, but there's always a little bit of subvert – not quite racism, but people make jokes here and there. At the time I wasn't really realizing why they'd do that and I'd just kind of play along. You deal with a lot of that underhanded, just not quite cool stuff. It's not cool.

The other thing is some recent examples of some of the harassment and discrimination that I'm hearing about that Indigenous employees are experiencing in some parts of the country. We're going to do a little bit more work and research to find out how widespread this might be and we're expecting that it probably is pretty widespread. There needs to be a lot more training, cultural competency training, cultural competency development within the public service as a whole. And I know that within ESDC, again, our Deputy Minister's message just affirms that more needs to be done.

So, I want to go back to when I first started, which was in 2004. Because I had that heavy duty involvement in my community with various advocacy organizations I was looked at as essentially sleeping with the enemy. I was called a traitor. You're a sellout. You're this. You're that. So people who are heavily into the grassroots movement, people who expected me to go on that path, be a bit more radical, acting as an external force, and I like to see it as acting as an internal force. So I stayed in the public service because it seemed like I would have better chances of effecting some kind of change from within the machine rather than throwing rocks from the outside. It can be really tough to overcome that kind of perspective from people in the community, so I've had to remain connected to my community in other ways and remain connected to the broader Indigenous Canada through other things – other ways to volunteer, appear that I haven't been totally co-opted by the government.

I thought I'd tell three really short stories of how I witnessed Indigenous employees – friends, colleagues, people I worked with – running up again some really difficult moments in their work for different reasons. It all came down to they had a job to try and advance an issue and they were trying to bring their expertise to it the best they could, and they encountered resistance in different ways. Early in my career I had the opportunity to sit in on a couple of working level interdepartmental review meetings where we would talk about – I think I can talk about this, and I'm not going to… I'm not revealing any state secrets – but when you bring forward an MC there are interdepartmental and internal review meetings set up where people basically kind of go around the room and talk through their concerns about to an MO to cabinet or TB submissions or a draft law or something. So in this particular meeting I watched someone I knew who was working basically for a program that was focused on northern issues. And her job in that meeting was to basically do the classic challenge function thing. Have you made sure that this document reflects the concerns that had been raised by people in the north and in this situation? And so she spoke, and as she spoke I watched people in the room and it was like all the oxygen went out of the room. People put their pens down. They put their heads down, let her talk about how all the ways this document was missing the northern First Nations perspective, or missing the Inuit community's perspective or so on. And when she was done, they lifted their heads, picked up their pens, and the meeting went on. And it was like, they basically tuned her out and I realized that this was happening again and again because I went to another meeting another time on another document. And she had the same job and it was a completely different file. But she went through the document, pointed out the places where the northern perspectives from missing. And again, the same thing happened. The pens went down. Heads went down. Everyone went silent. She finished. Heads came back up and pens got picked up and the meeting went on. Now this was a person who I respected and she had a job. It was the classic challenge function job to represent the perspective. And I could see the people in the room were basically just choosing not to hear what she was saying or not to put much stock in it.

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

A lot of my colleagues live a pretty well-furnished life. They have everything you can ask for, really, and are kind of going toward goals that are luxuries in life. Growing up, we weren't exactly poor but we weren't well off. I lived through some pretty poor times and some pretty hard times in my life… times where I wasn't homeless but for all intents and purposes, you know, uh, you could've said so, you know. There's times when I've been struggling in life, not suicidal, but just struggling in life for a purpose. What am I going to do? Why am I even around? What's the point? I don't think a whole lot of people – my colleagues – never experienced that kind of… I'm struggling to find the word. But it's kind of like with the privileges they have they don't realize how privileged they are. I'm not talking about wealthy lives. But I'm just talking to you about the basic things of having two parents there your entire life, brothers and sisters. You go to college and you get a job. That was never a certainty in my life. I finished high school. I went job to job but then I struggled for a very long time in a small town with no prospects and no new industry coming. It was a really big struggle.

It can be tough. It's a tough sell going back to the community, talking to young people and saying, “Hey, you should work for the Government of Canada” because the Government of Canada is seen as the enemy. They're seen as the purveyor of empty promises. So it's hard to give a convincing argument for why somebody should come work for the Government of Canada, much less work with the Government of Canada on any kind of joint anything. Anything is. Even in my lifetime – I'm only 36 – but people who are generations ahead of me and my family, they've lived that life of consistent disappointment with the Government of Canada, whether it's been in band administration, program administration… Like my mom, she's a director of economic development for our community and my grandfather used to be the band manager, so they were essentially hand to mouth for programs to deliver to communities and they're just constantly fighting, I guess, to try to find some kind of equity somewhere for the community. So yeah, it's a bit tough to say, “Hey, I work for the Government of Canada. I'm, I'm this, that, and the other thing.”

Another time some people I knew were working across departments on a project – and I can't get too specific about this – but they were working across departments on a project where the departments really had to represent a single Government of Canada voice in working with the Indigenous community representatives that were there at the table. And these guys, I knew them pretty well and they had worked with these community stakeholders in the past and had ideas on how to move things forward. But it became a point of resistance between the departments that were at the table. And when these guys tried to advance, tried to push…, eventually someone raised an alarm that these guys were trying to undermine the Government of Canada position and take the side of the Indigenous stakeholders instead. The impolite expression for this is 'going native'. And so they got attacked on that basis and it became a bit of a thing and there were some meetings and it all eventually got resolved. But those guys, their feelings were pretty badly hurt in that process. They had put themselves on the line. They'd put their reputations on the line to try and help things along and they got attacked and the part of the basis for the attack was that they were Indigenous and that they had that connection to the people that were working with. And that became not a source of strength, but it became something negative, something that made it to so that they couldn't be trusted. That was really eye-opening, not in a good way.

We need to address some of these things that are happening in a very, very serious way. And we need to make sure that there is cultural competency training and given to all employees, but more in particular supervisors, managers, directors, senior leaders, right up the line. I think there needs to be a lot more work done with respect to cultural competency, conflict management, problem solving, those kinds of things. And again, truth and reconciliation. Recommendation number 57 speaks to all those things. So I really think that there's a big job there and we really need to get at the heart of some of these things through that commitment and the high priority that we have right now and making these things happen.

So now our ADM uses the Indigenous Advisory Circle to look at the policies and any policy change.
We sit on a sector executive policy committee. We also sit on the executive HR committee for this factor. And so we put in commitments in the HR plan and it's not just about 50 percent hiring, it's about getting managers to attend awareness workshops that we hold, and our ADM pays for that. So we hire people to come in and they talk about Metis or they talk about First Nations and we're just starting to open it up to Inuit people.

I feel that it's a position of tremendous power because it gives me this opportunity to kind of check people on their biases. I'm doing it very gently. Like I'm just like, “Oh, by the way, I'm First Nation” or whatever. It'll come up in conversation and they have to really evaluate themselves. I like to kick the hornet's nest in that way as an education sort of thing, but I also like to… I also like to provide a challenge function, in a way, to decision makers and my colleagues when it comes to Indigenous issues. I like to speak from my own experience, but I'm also not representative of all of Indigenous Canada or the Indigenous experience because my experience is very different than many of my Indigenous colleagues here in the department.

My experience in the public service has greatly improved because of the [inaudible] and because of the Prime Minister's mandate for Indigenous people in our department. It's a positive experience. I feel free to express what I need. I feel free to raise the awareness on Indigenous people. I feel free to say what's right and what I disagree with. And when I speak the truth comes from my heart. I speak from my heart.

The third story – and again this is more standard fare, this type of thing happens all the time across government – and this one I can say we were working in the statistics field. And one of the products that our director had had developed over the years was analyzing – and this is going to get technical –analyzing census data to see how many First Nations people were moving from reserves to cities, how many people were moving from cities to reserves, and so on. This was of interest because the Government in the nineties especially had been criticized – and to some extent we're still criticized to this day – of under-funding programs basically to encourage people to leave reserves and go to cities. And if you follow the headline census announcements going back into the 96 census or the 2001 census, there was a lot of media attention to the fact that the urban Indigenous population was growing. And so the headline in the Globe and Mail – the proverbial headline in the Globe and Mail would be – there's an exodus from reserves. The thing is though, you can use census data to check that and see how many people are moving from one place to another, and the analysis that we had produced – our colleagues and predecessors over the years had produced – showed that that wasn't the case. There was a much more nuanced set of things happening where people are moving from reserve to cities in large numbers, but they are also people moving back from cities to reserves in large numbers, and you also have other dynamics at play. So one of the things that our shop would do over the years would be to pass that briefing up the line. And over the years, so new executives would come in and administrators who come in and I started to realize over time that we had to send that briefing up over and over again. And I came to realize that we were really fighting a losing battle making the case that, OK, this is what the data says and it might not be perfect, but this is at least a little bit of nuance to compare it to what's in the Globe and Mail, but the audience that we will be sending the stuff to, political or otherwise, either wasn't ready to hear it or was surprised and wanted to know more. But by the time we would get around to telling that story, new people would come in and we'd have to start all over again. So the reason I'm telling all these stories is watching this as an Indigenous person, we talk about the scale and the scope of the challenges that the Government of Canada has to deal with as far renewing a relationship with Indigenous peoples and communities, engaging in reconciliation, all the calls to action from the Truth and reconciliation report, and so on, closing socio-economic gaps. If you're an Indigenous person coming to this set of issues and you see, OK, well, what are the levers to make the case and make change? Well, you can go the evidence based route. That's not always successful. You can actually have a policy challenge function role in government, but if you do that, you you run the risk of – even if you have that job – you run the risk of not being listened to. So you have to be very cognizant of how you do that job and it's not always straightforward. And lastly, if you speak from an authentic place and just try to bring your expertise and relationships and connections directly to bear trying to help the cause, you run the risk of being criticized or questioned as far as your motives for doing that. And I'm not telling these stories to be all 'Debbie Downer'. It's just to illustrate there are a lot of challenges that a person may face trying to bring themselves to work, so to speak. So when we talk about how Indigenous employees engage in the public service and how they contribute, obviously we do a million different things in a million different types of jobs. Working in Parks Canada, working service, working IT, working in policy programs. You name it. When it comes to bringing ourselves to work, it can feel sometimes that there are a lot of challenges in how to do that. So that's why the fact that there's so much focus on reconciliation and renewing relationships now, it's a really interesting opportunity, but at the same time, there's also a lot of questions about how to do it well.

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 Andrea Dykstra, Jeannette Fraser, Ryan Jeddore, Daniel Jette, Pamela Kupeuna, and Tim Low.

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

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

Thank you for listening.


Download (MP3, 16.8 MB) Episode 7 – Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants

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