Building relationships with the Indigenous community may be easier than you think.
It should come as no surprise to you that Canada is in the era of Truth and Reconciliation. The tragic findings of graves on former Residential school sites, the Pope’s visit to Canada to express an apology to Indigenous people, and the on-going heartbreak of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls across Canada should be forefront in every Canadian’s mind. Daily, we all need to be asking ourselves, “What does Truth and Reconciliation mean to me?”, and “What can I do to make Reconciliation meaningful?”. A good start is to build positive relationships with the Indigenous community.
Relationships Matter, Relationships Take Work
The Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners call on all Canadians to redress the legacy of Residential Schools and build a Canada based on mutual respect and understanding. I have written many times that we must start with understanding the Truth first in order to ensure acts of reconciliation are meaningful and not performative or checked boxes. Hopefully, you have had the chance to learn more about the context of Indigenous people in Canada by taking the time to complete OKN’s 4 Seasons of Reconciliation learning course. If you have, you know then that the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with Indigenous communities will likely go a long way on the road to Reconciliation.
Both my parents forged considerable relationships on both professional and personal fronts. My mom and dad worked in Indigenous communities their entire careers. My mom traveled from one end of the province to the other in order to bring Adult Education programming to reserve communities. She finally retired at 71 and probably has seen more First Nations people graduate from Grade 12 than any other educator. She couldn’t do her work and be welcomed in the communities if she did not forge strong relationships. The power of my parents’ relationships was evident at my dad’s funeral 17 years ago. The main hall quickly filled, and the proceedings had to be broadcasted into the lobby and surrounding rooms. What an incredible honour it was to hear all the wonderful ways he helped others. Seeing all the people my dad and mom had maintained relationships with was incredibly comforting during the time of our grief. Relationships matter.
Where to start?
What can you do to forge relationships with the Indigenous community? I think it begins with truly and deeply understanding why it is important to you. Relationships require give and take. For too long, there has been too much taking from the Indigenous community. Make sure you are honest with yourself, and then go into the relationship building process with that honesty. What do you bring to the relationship? It might simply be a desire to humbly learn more about the community. Humility is important in the work of relationships.
Be respectful of Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and elected band officials. This means offering them a handshake. No need for a discussion but just a respectful acknowledgement of their role in the community is important. In fact, be sure to offer a handshake to everyone you meet. My dad taught me this early on. As Indigenous people, shaking hands is a respected ritual. We shake hands with everyone when we enter or leave a room. We shake hands after we dance. We shake hands because we are Indigenous. It’s our way. Even if you do not know people by name, go and shake their hand and introduce yourself. Showing respect is a good way to start a relationship.
Start by showing up…and keep showing up
Recently, I became acutely aware of the importance of simply “showing up” to begin the process of relationship building. Debwewin Oakville is a Truth of the Land initiative of the Oakville Community Foundation (OCF) and has worked for the last few years to promote the Treaties held by the Mississauga of the Credit First Nation. To foster and continue their relationship, Debwewin and the Mississauga’s jointly hosted a community event on the First Nation to celebrate the signing of the Treaties. Gifts were exchanged, and the evening was filled with food, laughter, and entertainment. While this event highlights the importance of reciprocity in relationships, it also highlights that being present is a key element in beginning relationships.
I attended the event with my cousin and a colleague. As we worked our way around the room meeting people and greeting friends, it struck me how often our Indigenous hosts asked both of my guests if they had met before. Both were able to quickly identify those times in the past their paths had crossed, even if they had not spoken or met at these events. In fact, my colleague Jordan, had been to a Treaty signing report launch earlier in the week and almost everyone noted that they recognized him from that event. It was a great starting point for a more robust conversation. Jordan’s “showing up” was noted and appreciated by the community. Here’s what he had to say about his experience,
“As someone whose lived in Halton most of my life and worked in the region for many years, it was very encouraging to see both the Oakville and MCFN community come together to recognize and celebrate treaty relationships. When people recognized me from attending the Oakville Treaty Day event held earlier in the week, that really emphasized to me the importance of showing up and putting relationships first. There’s no reconciliation and no honoring of treaty responsibilities without strong person to person and Nation to Nation relationships.”
“Showing up” may mean you have to be brave and show courage to step outside of your comfort zone. You may be the minority in many Indigenous hosted events and must sit quietly, respectfully observe, and sit with your uncomfortableness. This is where deep learning begins. It may not take you long to make the connection between how you are feeling out of place and how Indigenous people have been made to feel for decades.
A good friend of mine, non-Indigenous, shared her experience of uncomfortableness with being an outsider to the community. My friend is strongly committed to learning the Truth and taking meaningful steps of Reconciliation. Her family regularly engages in hard discussions about how Indigenous people have been treated and have gone out of their way to find Indigenous vendors to provide goods in their renovation projects. I gifted my friend a ribbon skirt to honour her deep and abiding commitment. Not always an easy thing to wear when you’re not Indigenous; cultural appropriation is real.
As the story goes, my friend attended a rally to honour Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She had to make her way to an Indigenous community agency that was unknown to her. The Indigenous ladies were making signs and banners for the rally and while acknowledging her, did not ask her to participate in what they were doing. She also had brought a gift of food with her which was not really acknowledged either. She sat there, wondering if she was doing the right thing by even being there. It took some time but eventually she was included at the sign making table. When it was time to walk to the rally, my friend was humble, found a place in the back, wearing her ribbon skirt, and had a profoundly moving experience. She will show up the next time and the time after that. She may even volunteer at the center. She knows that even though she was uncomfortable, sitting with that feeling provided her with insight into the realities Indigenous people must face in non-Indigenous institutions. Sitting quietly with humility led to her eventually being included. “Showing up” matters.
How can you “show up”? Attend Indigenous community events is a start. You can find these on Indigenous media websites such as WindSpeaker and Two Row Times. Follow Social Media sites of the First Nations in your territory. There are Indigenous Facebook groups in most areas that post events. Visit and tour Indigenous community centers to learn about what services they offer. It is indoor pow wow season; all are invited. Make the effort to find out what is happening in your community and then “show up” and keep showing up!