People in Canada are coming to terms with the need to acknowledge the country’s history, respect diversity in all forms, and establish common ground with one another...or risk losing the opportunity to build a healthier future. Calls for justice, equity, and systems change are loud and clear. But to get on a path towards progress means to recognize histories, perspectives, and Indigenous voices and ensure that the common ground we set is reflective of all people that champion the collective future.
Here, Bonnie Leask, Director of Indigenous Engagements, and Rachel Arsenault, Advisor, reflect on diversity, decolonization, and reconciliation, and how making space for honest, shared dialogue is a necessary ingredient to building a better, more inclusive nation.
Rachel Arsenault: Hi, Bonnie! I’m always happy to speak with you, especially when we talk about our work together at Coeuraj. Speaking of our work, what brought you here?
Bonnie Leask: I have worked in First Nations and Métis political systems for close to 20 years. You can imagine that I have some good stories to tell, but what I’ve really gained is a deep understanding of these systems, their pain points, and places where new ideas and opportunities can emerge. “Canada” is a place with multi-faceted identities and it’s at a tipping point about how it treats Indigenous peoples and reckons with its own past. The status quo is no longer acceptable. Systems are changing, and we need to change them for the better. I come to this work with a true desire to make an impact for my family, my Nation, and other First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, as well as the future of this country.
And how about you, Rachel?
RA: Well, over the past seven years, I’ve worked with the goal of supporting Indigenous communities and organizations, as well as allied partners that would like to better work with them to impact systems change. What motivates me to do this work is getting people to see the bigger picture and understand that improving outcomes requires diverse ways of thinking and perspectives. Because the reality is, knowing and understanding only one knowledge system—the western knowledge system—hasn’t helped everyone in the past century.
BL: I like your point about the need for diversity. Because when we think about it, there are so many cultures, languages, and traditions among First Nations. You and I are First Nations but you are Odawa and Ojibwe and I am Cree with different sets of teachings and beliefs. We see this in the work we are doing together and this leads me to ask you why diversity is key to bringing change across the country?
RA: First Nations have so many unique cultures and languages shaped by their perspectives, territories, and histories. Acknowledging and understanding this diversity will help everyone better recognize why a “one size fits all” approach will never work. To enact change, you need to be working with frameworks that are flexible and adaptable so that it can be tailored to suit the needs of diverse Indigneous groups.
BL: Agreed. Often, there’s a “Pan-Indigenous” approach taken to understanding Indigenous cultures that does not resonate with every Nation or group; what might make sense for the Coast Salish doesn't make sense for the Woodland Cree people. Take for example, the system of governance that has been imposed on First Nation and Inuit people is at direct odds with First Nations and Inuit ways of knowing and living. Yet there is a widely-held belief that this enforced system is for the best, even though it has harmed our communities. People in Canada need to better understand these differences before charging ahead to enable concrete change.
RA: And, if we’re talking about recognizing difference, it’s important to also recognize that people also define often-used terms in different ways. They’re not as universal as one might think. One particular term that comes to mind is decolonization. How would you go about defining it yourself?
BL: You’re right, decolonization is a loaded word. There’s a lot of working definitions that aren’t always aligned. For me, decolonization starts with my experiences as a Cree woman. When I apply this term to a broader, societal context, it means to identify the path forward, understanding the systems in which we are operating and knowing that there are paths and solutions rooted in our own ways of being. It’s about starting from within.
I want to add that we have to be careful with using words and acknowledge, first and foremost, what they mean to us as people. If we don’t know what these words mean to us, we surrender to the status quo and fail to do our due diligence to be reflective, critical, and curious.
RA: Yes, and whenever I think about decolonization, I first reflect on how knowledge is created, shared, and given value. As a researcher, I think it’s important to recognize how long it took before Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge systems were accepted as valid. If we go back to the treaties, Indigenous peoples have always understood the strength and integrity of their ways of sharing information, and how they could enhance other knowledge systems. This is a principle and way of thinking I’d like to see more people adopt.
BL: So then, what considerations do we need to make to help decolonize our work?
RA: Decolonization, to me, is fundamentally about respect and understanding. To start, we can change our mindsets and how we engage with one another. There is an Elder from the East Coast named Albert Marshall who talks about “two-eyed seeing,” which is the ability to see what is required from a western perspective and from your own cultural perspective. So when I work, I bring my Indigenous perspectives and people from other cultures bring theirs. And of course, these exchanges have to be respectful. Because different ways of thinking come with different safeguards. For example, some knowledge may not be something which we can share publicly without permission.
BL: I totally agree. Decolonization starts with creating a thoughtful and safer space so that people can bring their whole selves and feel able to share in a healthy, solutions-oriented way. And that requires people to ask deep questions that both challenge and honour history, recognize present-day realities, and enable progress towards a better future. Questions like: What do current social services and structures look like now, and what could they evolve into? What does a healthy community look like for future generations? How do we respect and hold onto our values as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, and make space for further diversity that exists within our communities?
BL: I am always reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. ““Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
Right now more than ever we need to think.
RA: Reflecting on what we’ve both shared, Bonnie, do you believe applying some of this thinking can lead us farther down the path of Reconciliation in Canada?
BL: We need to remember that there’s much work to do, and honestly, this is work that will never stop. Reconciliation is not an outcome...it’s a process. Canada won’t wake up one day and see a nicely packaged gift at our door that says, “Here’s the gift Reconciliation...you’ve done it!”. But, if we think about Reconciliation as a committed process towards collective healing, justice, and resilient relationships, then yes, we can get on the path to creating an inclusive future where we all contribute and benefit.
But, if we think about Reconciliation as a committed process towards collective healing, justice, and resilient relationships, then yes, we can get on the path to creating an inclusive future where we all contribute and benefit.
We’re going to see a constant evolution when it comes to the idea of Reconciliation. While initial progress has been so slow, we’re in an era where we can truly see change take place.
RA: Speaking of this evolution towards Reconciliation, what is important to building better relationships with Indigenous communities and organizations?
BL: You know, I don’t think it’s a question of being better; it’s about being sincerely curious and committed to showing up to do the work. People need to acknowledge their privilege, understand the vantage point from which they’re seeing the world, reach out, and make real, human connections. What I’d say to people and organizations looking to engage is: don’t be so afraid of making mistakes that you disengage at the outset.
Part of the national conversation that’s happening around the children whose lives were taken from them through the Residential School system, is the reality that people didn’t show up for them when they needed to—and now people are showing up years later. So, we all need to show up. We need to start doing that today and not wait for a “better” time to do that.
RA: And I think similar to what you shared about not being afraid of making mistakes, it’s important to remember that no one is expected to have all the right answers. We’re all people, and if we recognize our shared humanity, we can move forward.
And there are tools to guide meaningful relationship building so that you don’t need to go it alone. In 2019, Dan Pujdak (Coeuraj Canada’s Executive Lead) and I developed an Indigenous Inclusion Framework to support organizations with increasing Indigenous participation, engagement, and outreach, and respectfully incorporate Indigenous knowledge and culture into their work. Our hope was to help bridge this gap, and empower people to show up with the right tools in hand.
And I hope Coeuraj can help move this work forward too. Because in the short time that I've worked here, I’ve already been in awe of the diverse team we’ve built, and the work we’ve set out to accomplish. How do you think Coeuraj can play a role in actualizing this change?
BL: The best part of Coeuraj is that it’s a company that makes space for understanding, for mistakes, and for the mess that comes with difficult conversations. We acknowledge that people are, at times, afraid to engage with complicated problems, and so we make space for those emotions and build the backdrop for a new type of conversation to emerge—one that doesn't happen in today’s public discourse.
Since joining the Coeuraj team, I’ve seen a new way where I can bring change and share in creating impact for my own people, and other First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities.
I saw a quote that said “our aunties, mothers, and grandmothers were raised to think they were not good enough. Blood memory is strong and it's in us. But as Indigenous peoples, it’s our time to walk tall and proud, and steward a better future for our people, and for everyone, together.” I keep that to heart because it is true on all fronts - we were taught to believe we weren’t good enough, but that sentiment is ending now. I am proud to be part of a team that supports sentiments of a collective better future.