Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants Episode 8 – Support

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: 43:30 minutes


(soundbyte: Daniel Jette)

"Sometimes a cultural change in the workplace is the hardest thing to achieve. You're talking about a lot of unlearning: unlearning colonial practices, unlearning colonial policies. As an Indigenous employee it can be very challenging to bring yourself to work if the environment doesn't support it."

(music: "Hoka" – 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: "New Women Song" – Cris Derksen)

When "Indigenous Perspectives" was in the planning phase, I envisioned my role as technical producer, the recording engineer, the editor. The series, I thought, should be hosted by an Indigenous person. A recognized one. Not me.

But not being able to fill that role forced me to confront the reasons I felt unworthy to do this.

You see, one of the secrets in my family has always been that my mother is Métis.

She was a sickly baby, eventually deemed too vulnerable to remain in the care of her teenage mother, and so she was taken away in infancy, placed into the foster care system and eventually adopted into a non-Indigenous household in the rural north.

It was a small mining town with a large European population. The racism was both overt and subtle, with jokes being the most pervasive mechanism for spreading the message that being Native was nothing to be proud of.

My mother seemed tortured by whatever was inside of her. She was mercurial. Sometimes sweet, but often sullen or stoic, then frighteningly enraged.

What she knew of herself she rarely spoke of, but she gravitated toward sewing, beading, even working in a local shop that sold Indigenous art, clothing and handicrafts but never openly acknowledging that this interest stemmed from her origins.

As her son, I took my cue from her. Whatever we were, we should keep it to ourselves, but it was okay to exist in parallel with the Métis culture and even enjoy it, from a distance. My school friends were Métis, my girlfriend was Métis, but I… was whatever people thought I was.

I was accepted it into the Northern Social Work Program where I looked like the minority among predominately First Nations students. But secretly, I didn't feel like the outsider. I loved the daily immersion in their cultures, I loved being around people like the ones I grew up with, but I had inherited my mother's shame.

When I think back, I was too immature to cope with everything I was feeling at that time. That I passed for white. That I would never be accepted as Métis. That I was too disconnected from that heritage to even claim it as an inheritance. But more than that, I was benefiting tremendously from blending into the white world. That there were more advantages to clinging to white privilege than being true to who I really was.

But as the years passed, I pressed my mother for more information about where we'd come from, but all she would say was that her dad was Cree.

To this day, she won't talk about it, which leaves me frustrated because there's no way for me to know more. Her adoption records are sealed and can only be considered for release upon her death.

The only avenue available to me to have any insight into the missing half of my bloodline was through DNA testing, which I considered for years but would always find reasons to avoid.

Which brings me back to this podcast, and the very mixed feelings I had in taking it on, and being a part of the content to the degree that I have. It weighed on me heavily from the beginning. Am I the right person to be doing this? Isn't there someone else more worthy of this role?

Working with others to tell the stories of their journey has taken me on a journey of my own. It was the impetus to finally confront the question of my identity with a scientific answer.

And what I learned about my siblings – and myself – was validating. Having laboratory results in my hand gave me a sense of peace and comfort. I was the right person to do this series. I am a legitimate narrator for this library of stories. And maybe I needed to do this project in order to give my life direction it lacked, room to grow when I've been stunted for too many years wondering who I am.

I'm still missing half a family tree. There is no community that I can call my own, or that can say 'he is one of us', but I am a step closer to a sense of wholeness I have never known before, and I am thankful for that.

And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants about the role of culture in the public service.

(flute: Greg Reiter)


So, if this was your podcast – if you had the ears of the whole of Canadians, the whole of the public service – are there any stories, any observations, experiences, or just general statements that you'd like to make that should be part of this information that we're going to be distributing through this podcast?


I guess one thing I would like to address is the whole business of self-identification. A lot of people… and I had discussions this morning about this and many discussions over several last several months about Indigenous peoples not wanting to self-identify when they've been asked to. And people feel that there is a real stigma associated with self-identification, that you know as soon as you self-identify as an Indigenous person, you know, through our HR system or self-identify you know in meetings or your work-teams or whatever. There's a stigma. You've got a target on your back. And that you've got the job only because you're Indigenous. And you're not really as qualified as anyone else, that you've got a special hand to get a job because you're Indigenous. Number, one that's not true. I mean, I spoke about the difficulty of getting these jobs in the first place. Those of us that are that are here have gotten through that and it was because of our knowledge and our experience and our ability to sell ourselves that we're here. So we're here on our merit and we all do the work we've been asked to do and many of us excel at that work. So, number one, it's not true. Number two, it's just not about us as individuals. It's about what we can do with that information. Not your name in particular but with the number. So the more people that we have who self-identify, the more weight we've got – as, say, the Indigenous Employees Circle has – the more weight we've got to be able to advocate on people's behalf and to work with the policy makers in H.R. and senior leadership in the department. We've got more weight when it comes to making this a better place for us to work in. More appropriate recruitment processes and results. Better retention results. Better career development for all of our people. So it's not just a singular thing. It's for everyone and that's really that's the Indigenous world view. We don't look at things as individuals as much as we do community. For us, community is everything. Family is everything. The individual is only a part of those things. So I'm hoping that we can encourage people to identify, not only to help us says the Indigenous Employees Circle and to work with and to advocate and to make this a better workplace, but also to be proud of who you are and not to be ashamed of self-identifying as an Indigenous person. And that's probably the most important thing, when I come to think of it, that we should be proud of who we are, and self-identifying. And then, the other benefit of the self-identification process, that's something that we're struggling with right now and we know that people are impacted at an individual level. But if we look at the bigger picture it can help a lot of people –everyone that's here – and the more of us who come in and we're hoping to expand those numbers I said.


Sometimes a cultural change in the workplace is the hardest thing to achieve. You're talking about a lot of unlearning. Unlearning colonial practices. Unlearning colonial policies. As an Indigenous employee it can be very challenging to bring yourself to work if the environment doesn't support it. So in that sense anything that supports that type of cultural change within the workplace is helpful. You hear a lot of voices of frustration, a lot of impatience in terms of how the government is working on things, how the bureaucracy is working poorly or not working fast enough on some changes or maybe it's missing the point or making the same mistakes all over again. There are a lot of hard feelings, a lot of distrust. And, if I can be candid about the way things went in terms of the Government's approach to Indigenous issues over the last number of years, then you dovetail that with the impact on the public service of deficit reduction and so on, a lot of the things that you need to have those types of healthy relationships and dialogues were cut away or they were discouraged. So again, outside government Indigenous people carried on. We carried on and continued doing work, continued to strengthen our communities advancing ideas. Now the government is engaged in these issues again and trying to rebuild connections with stakeholders, with communities. But the corporate knowledge within government isn't there. There has been generational change. A lot of the mentors and people that I worked with early in my career – these would have been people that I might have met either through my early work in government or partly through connection to my mother's work. And there were a lot of times early in my career with those universes kind of overlapped. There's generational change. People are retiring. People are passing on and there's new people who are coming into the roles, into leadership roles in Indigenous communities and they don't have relationships with government and the new generation of leaders within government also don't necessarily have those relationships on the outside. So, it's really important to bridge that gap, do a lot of inter-generational connection while it's still possible and create opportunities for people to develop tips and mentor relationships inside and outside government. The onus is on us to be change agents and I think we welcome that. But it'll be interesting to see how that all plays out. Going back to what we were saying about the Prime Minister's message around the onus being on governments to change institutions, the onus cannot, as a practical matter, be only on Indigenous employees to be the change agents within the workplace. The onus has to be, on some level, on everybody but especially those who have a role in terms of whether it's policy gatekeeping, policy discussions, values and ethics, to reflect on how they can change their practices in a way that would open up discussions and make the workplace a safer environment, a more welcoming environment for people to bring again to bring themselves to work. And by the way, that wouldn't just benefit Indigenous employees and it wouldn't just benefit discussion on Indigenous issues in the public service. I think if we were able to make those changes to values and ethics, frameworks and make those changes to processes it would really enrich the discussions that we have on a whole range of issues. The public service can benefit a lot from looking at the current discussions on reconciliation and taking a cue on how it can change its practices. It's not easy. It takes a lot of time. There would be a lot of resistance in some places. I think that case can be made that the status quo is inadequate on a whole bunch of fronts.


So in the 10 years or so that I've worked for the federal public service starting out with ESDC, I've seen some small changes towards increased visibility and acknowledgement and integration of Indigenous-ness. For example, the cultural centre that's in Phase IV in the building where I work at, the acknowledgement that meetings are being held on traditional lands. Where do you see additional opportunities to bring more Indigenous culture? Where's the role for it to be made even more widespread and felt and experienced in our in our daily work?


So my understanding is is that every government department now plays a role in Indigenous communities. So I think that department-wide there should be Indigenous Advisory Circles in each sector – or however they want to do in the department – and that Indigenous Advisory Circle is responsible for putting the Indigenous lens on all new policies, plans and programs. I would love to see that in all the federal government departments. Because when you put the Indigenous lens, when an Indigenous lens exists, do you know what happens? Then people in the department listen to the Indigenous people. If you want to make a change in the communities for Indigenous people, you need to listen to your internal Indigenous staff. And so, a mechanism needs to be created so that Indigenous people have a voice. The way I see that happening now is with the way we're doing it and to be working with an Indigenous Advisory Committee. You know, in our Indigenous Advisory Circles we work in a cultural way where we include our youth and we include our Elders. So the youth are usually the students or they're anybody under 30 years old and we value their opinions even though they're very shy to speak, because they're new in government and they're still young in life. They're kind of bit shy. And you know as a young person and Indigenous, you're stabbed in the back several times over your life, as a result of racism, the experience that there's always a lack of Indigenous history in all of the elementary and or secondary high school, you only really learn about it in post-secondary. Anyway, I know I'm going around in circles but I think that would be one mechanism and that mechanism would be tied not just to your ADM. I don't know how this is going to do it, but in our department we have CANE, which is the Committee for Aboriginal Native Employment and they have a direct link to the Deputy Minister. So, they book that committee report directly to the Deputy Minister. So we would link together – what we're trying to do now is to link together all the IECs and work horizontally with CANE and then we had that reporting mechanism up to the Deputy Minister.


Maybe increase the Inuit cultural awareness sessions. We do get the Aboriginal Awareness Week. I think there should be mandatory Inuit cultural awareness training for those individuals that hold the North of 60 portfolios so they'll be on the same page.


I appreciate seeing the acknowledgement to the… some people call it the unceded territory, we'd rather call it the unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin people, at least for federal buildings in the National Capital Region. But generally speaking across the country there has been more acknowledgement, there's been more space made for the inclusion of Indigenous spaces in some workplaces. I know Health Canada's done it, Indigenous Affairs has done it, a number of departments have recognized that, created Elders Lodges or meeting spaces. When I was at defence we had movement with policies around military officers who were members who wanted to grow braids or follow certain traditions whether they were in the historical hunting, fishing, or trapping, or times of that were important in some sort of allowances and recognition respectfully about those differences. I feel that in some ways, not all Indigenous people – and so that's the other thing is that over 600 you know First Nations in Canada – and I wouldn't say we're all different, but there are significant differences in both outlook, history and in structure and governance and beliefs and behaviours. I guess some of my colleagues in the Indigenous space take a very serious view of the importance of this country and its image and so the public servant you know that's the kind of thing you want to see in a in an employee as somebody who is committed to understanding the benefits they bring to the entire country or their contribution to demand the big system. So again, I don't think it's different. It depends where that person might be working. But I think it's just a question of more diversity. I mean that's what we want to celebrate. That's basically the message. So, does it does it have a stronger hold in other cultures in the workplace? Well, likely yes because of the history. And I'd say that's really the only other – next to respecting the two official languages – is a healthy and let's say a resurgence in respect for Indigenous history and and bringing positive relationships up in the workplace. I think that you know but again it depends on the individual look and how they were raised and how their views are politically or personally. You know it really depends on the individual.


There's think visual physical aspect of creating a space that's inviting to First Nations, Inuit, Metis and other employees who are non-Indigenous to utilize that space to learn about Indigenous peoples. I was part of the Aboriginal Employees Circle here in the department when we first launched it about seven years ago and we received the Prime Minister's Award, public service award, for that the creation of the circle. So there was recognition to the efforts behind creating a safe cultural space and a committee that would help advance the awareness and promotion of integrating Aboriginal culture in the workplace. So, the physical boardroom, that's one example. Also, providing promotional materials and learning tools about First Nations, Inuit, Metis, made available so that's creating cultural awareness so that employees can gain knowledge and understanding. One of the things I've always said too if one is working on an Aboriginal file they should always have an opportunity to travel to the reserve or community or the city in which they're working for or with. So, creating that space, I think there's opportunities for advancement around that. In terms of the Indigenous employee perspective, my own perspective and perspective I've heard from other employees, is creating these types of spaces not only helps advance the reconciliation agenda but also a culture change within the organization. It could be a little bit difficult, so ensuring that there's a strong partnership with Aboriginal employees and establish Aboriginal communities like the Circle, it's important to ensure that all the right players are at the table and looking at how culture change can be implemented, so that there's the opportunity to be creative in ensuring that there's physical space and learning opportunities. And, also having a space where Indigenous / Aboriginal organisations could come to a government building for a meeting and see a dedicated space for someone of their people. For example we met with ITK last week or two weeks ago and I made sure we met in the cultural centre in ESDC. One of the plans is to create that space with artwork dedicated to First Nations, Inuit, Metis. But at least inviting external partners or stakeholders to a government space where it's dedicated to their people, I think, creates respect of what we're doing to implement some of the cultural change, because cultural change is organizational change, physical change, and also ensuring that all employees are aware of some of these some reconciliation processes and paths we're working with. So there's communication across the department in terms of what we're doing to help build the trust and relationship internally and externally.


As an Indigenous person in the public service, for the most part I have been probably very lucky in the sense of being able to work on issues that I care about and work in an environment where I feel supported in doing so. At the same time it has to be acknowledged that that it's not always the case. And you read stories, you read statistics from the Public Service Employee Survey or elsewhere about Indigenous employees or visible minority employees encountering discrimination or harassment or just discomfort being themselves and speaking authentically. And I think there are a lot of conversations that we need to have within the public service about that. I was really engaged during the Blueprint 2020 discussions – the early days of that when there were a lot of discussions happening online on GCconnex, outside the government to processes on Twitter and elsewhere, where we were talking about public service ethics and how employees of different backgrounds can bring themselves authentically to the public service and whether they're supposed to. And one of the things that I always found intriguing about this is that we take an oath to uphold the laws and values of the Canadian government including the constitution. And within that there are provisions around discrimination and protection of human rights and protecting equality and the voices that different people bring to the public service coming from different areas, coming from poverty, coming from immigrant communities, coming from First Nations, coming from one city where you have linguistic minorities coming from different places. They can bring a lot of rich perspectives to that and can enrich the policy discussions that happen within government, can enrich discussions around how programs are designed, how programs are implemented, how services are provided to people. But in order for that wealth of knowledge and experience to be brought forward, people have to feel comfortable and empowered to bring those ideas ahead. And that's an ongoing challenge especially when you're always in a race to meet the next target, meet the next deadline. There's not always a lot of time to hear everybody's voice and this is something that we need to work on.


At first it wasn't recognized 15 years ago when I started. I started with a book display I brought in speakers. I was one of the organizers for the Indigenous peoples employee circle. Now it's different, very very different. Now we even had in-person meetings with funding to come from across Canada. The members that were in the executive could come to Ottawa. I would like to see signs in the hallway that say this is the original unceded Algonquin territory. I'd like to see that somewhere in all the buildings in university, where there's a big poster to acknowledge that when you walk in, this was traditionally… this was an Indigenous territory. At Carleton they have a tipi. At Ottawa U they now have an Elder. But we need more visible signs of those kinds of things: a plaque, something on the building, especially for the government. We don't see it and at least now before meetings we now add knowledge, from the Director General down, we acknowledge territory. It's maybe, possibly a token gesture but it's something. You know we need to do that recognition. New people coming into Canada need to know that. This wasn't just English and French here. There's been people here since way, way, way before the Common Era. You know, when they started putting things on the calendar. They've been here. We've been here. Grandfather Commanda said, "We've always been here and more and more research proves that. We just didn't walk across the Bering Strait. How could they have eaten when the land was frozen?" You know, some of it is just contradictory. I'm lucky where I am […] they're quite knowledgeable now. I've had speakers in. They have lots of books to go through. We talk a lot. This particular group is aware. I'm lucky and they're very supportive of my project. I said I was going to go into the series with the Canada School of Public Service. It was "Congratulations!" They dropped by my office. When I got word they came to my office. They're just wonderful group here. It's my colleagues. No, they're okay. And they read up and they'll see an article and they'll come and chat. They're just great, my colleagues, because I have wonderful directors from Mr. Simoni to particularly Dave Thompson who's been supportive. I've known him since 20 years and he's always been supportive so I'm just lucky.


My current manager made sure that the committees that I do sit on, which is the Indigenous Advisory Committee, and I also am an ambassador for the department to recruit Indigenous people in the department. I also volunteer on another committee, the Kumik Lodge committee. So I'm there to participate in selecting all the Elders who come through the Kumik Lodge. So my manager made sure that I put all of those committees in my performance agreement, what specific things that I'm doing and making sure that I meet them so that it is recognized. She's doing it because she wants to make sure that it's recognized because right now it's all volunteer and we're all working off the side of our desks. And we're trying to get at least one position for a start for each IAC. So, a dedicated FTE at a higher level because that person would be responsible for not just the committee but also going to the ADM and before the whole sector as well as the executive policy committee and executive H.R. committee for the sector.


You know, acknowledging the traditional territories of the People's upon where our offices are, that's something that's on the books. That's in the plan to be recognized right across the country. And we're hoping to initiate that in the very near future. And we want to include – we definitely want to include – ceremonies like having Elders and Indigenous leaders and Community leaders together at those ceremonies. And acknowledging those territories and the fact that the Indigenous peoples' perspectives way back when when the Europeans first arrived, the early treaties were peace and friendship treaties. And treaties were formed between nations. And the Royal Proclamation recognized the nation to nation relationship in the making of treaties and so recognized individual Indigenous nations as nations as sovereign nations who had Aboriginal rights and title to the use of the land. So, we've got to go back to what the original intent of those relationships and those treaties were and it was of sharing the land, not owning the land. Indigenous peoples long, long ago and still today don't look at the land as something you own. It's something that we all use and we have an obligation to take care of that land. The European world view is that you take control. You own land. You can buy and sell land. That's not the Indigenous world view. So there is a plan to recognize those traditional territories where we have offices right across the country and hopefully we'll see that in the near future. The cultural centre in Phase IV, again, that came about from a meeting with the Indigenous Employees Circle and our Deputy Minister Louise Levonian telling her that we really did need… We were having a problem getting meeting space in Phase IV, as at all the branches and groups do in Phase IV. It's just a huge demand. But we felt that we needed not just a meeting room. We needed a cultural centre. We needed some place where we can share our traditional knowledge and materials and whatnot with all ESDC employees but a special place for us to be able to meet to feel comfortable to have discussions and difficult discussions or planning discussions or or those kinds of things. And she felt strongly as well that that was a good idea and that she would do everything she could to make that happen, which she did, and we really appreciate that. But I think you're going to see more of that not only in the NCR and NCR region – we refer to it that way – but right across the other four regions in the country as well, where the senior leaders, the ADMs in the regions that I'm aware of have a have a real commitment to Indigenous… creating better Indigenous awareness and more respectful workplaces, respecting Indigenous cultures and traditions and the employees within. I think we're going to see more of that in the regions as well.


I feel free to express what I need. I feel free to raise the awareness on Indigenous people. I feel free to say what is right and what I disagree with and when I speak that truth comes from my heart. I speak from my heart and there's a lot of people that I work with who don't always speak from their heart because, for whatever reason, they're just not able to. So if you can't speak from your heart working at Indigenous Affairs… You know, one of the Deputy Ministers or one of the Associate Deputy Ministers or one of the ADMs that tells me, you haven't got a clue about what you really want to do, other than what you only do which you've always known, which is all about the patriarch, the whole way of doing things from from different levels down like a hierarchy. That's still in our government system. But if you were to ask me what reconciliation is, especially in our department at Indigenous relations and Indigenous services, it would be breaking down those structures and having it more about – structures as in the military structure of the Deputy Minister and the ADM and then the DGs and then the Directors and the managers. I don't even know what that would look like, really, from an Indigenous point of view. You know, we always talked in a circle. The sector IAC, we have challenged people at the sector all-staff meeting to start having circles instead of meetings and circle, you know, we are holding the feather – the eagle feather – the eagle feather makes you speak the truth and I haven't seen it yet. You know, where people are doing that. It's too foreign. And they don't know enough about the culture, but that's fine. They'll get there. But I would like to see, if we can't talk in circles, but just to have free open debate and consensus before making a decision. Whereas before, you know, it's always the top who made those decisions for Indigenous people. I see it changing in our sector and I see it changing and in another sector but other sectors aren't where we are at yet.


I was extremely fortunate as a young Indigenous employee to have access to an incredible range of mentors. When I joined the research directorate in INAC I was one of at least six senior Indigenous employees there – Ph.D. researchers, researchers with over 25 years’ experience in government working on statistical analysis of well-being, language. It was an incredibly rare experience to have that much of a community of people working together. And again, so many other Indigenous employees that I was working with, working under, and learning from. I also, partly because of again some access to my mother's work and also the partnerships and the relationships that the team developed, I was able to meet, interact with, learn from a number of Indigenous scholars working in different research fields and policy fields across the country. So, that was a really special privilege for a young Indigenous public servant coming to Ottawa hoping the changed world. And it's something that I don't think I appreciated that much at the time until I stepped back and turned around in a few years later and suddenly a lot of people that either retired or moved on to other things and suddenly that core of six or seven was now two or three and I was one of the more senior ones and it was a very different context. Still, you know, supportive but it made me realize how rare an experience that is for Indigenous employees coming to government, especially if they're coming from away and coming to Ottawa. They wouldn't necessarily have that support network and peer network and mentor network as Indigenous employees. So, I think that was a really important part of my grounding in the public service – believing that I could be here and care about these issues and work authentically on them and not hide who I was or not hide what I cared about.

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 Don Bilodeau, Jeannette Fraser, Daniel Jette, Tooneejoulee Kootoo-Chiarello, Pamela Kupeuna, Tim Low and Leesie Naqitarvik.

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, 24 MB) Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants Episode 8 – Support

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