Co-written by the Anishinaabekweg 4Rs super team of Lacey Dawn Hawranik & Jess Bolduc

During the past year, 4Rs worked to develop and deliver a reconciliation-focused curriculum for a group of frontline staff and management working in the youth & volunteer sectors, alongside public servants who represented the government department which was funding their work. This small group, which we referred to as a learning community, came together monthly to hear from Indigenous voices and perspectives so they could build competency to assess how their organizations are working with Indigenous youth and communities, and how they might better support Indigenous-led reconciliation through their programs. Our hope was by decentering Western expectations of what a curriculum should be, and by recentering an Indigenous learning pedagogy, that they could authentically deepen their relationship to their own allyship efforts in both personal and professional ways.

The process of creating a meaningful online learning experience where we could build community was an enlightening and challenging experience for us collectively; this work, after all, happened while navigating a pandemic that severely impacted many aspects of our lives. We wanted to share some of our own reflections of this process and what we felt are relevant issues and learnings about organizational allyship, the future of reconciliation & volunteer work, in order to build relational infrastructure that moves beyond buzzwords and good intentions, and into a collective capacity to implement structural and systemic change. What we are sharing may not be new or novel, but important nonetheless for our process of learning.

Without centering Indigenous experiences, meaningful reconciliation is not possible

Supporting participants’ online learning meant we needed to make time to deepen their understanding of what Indigenous communities are asking of allies when it comes to acting on their responsibilities related to reconciliation. As a team, we reflected that without centering Indigenous experiences, meaningful reconciliation is not possible. There is a real danger of causing Indigenous communities harm, not to mention missed opportunities for important systemic work, when reconciliation is defined solely as Indigenous & non-Indigenous relationship building achieved through the education of non-Indigenous peoples.  We recognized a need to think about what is missing from reconciliation conversations today that prevents people from taking action at individual, organizational, community and systemic levels. In order to bring the focus, and intention to truth, to recognize and uphold the wisdom that exists in Indigenous knowledge systems, we had to interrogate our own approaches and how we were contributing (or not) to the centring of Indigenous knowledge and experiences.

Let’s move away from trauma voyeurism and move toward tangible action

One of the goals our team had for the learning community was to move the education away from participating in trauma voyeurism and towards tangible action. It feels important to acknowledge and name that while there can be an insatiable appetite for the regurgitation of Indigenous stories and trauma, the understanding of Indigenous realities and lived experiences in the present day is surprisingly lacking. During the learning community, a few participants talked about how this was the first time they’d heard about the extent of the impacts of colonization and that the stories shared by Indigenous young people were shocking to them. This of course feels in stark contrast to what Indigenous youth over generations have been shouting from the rooftops for years. With the issues, and the impacts laid bare over and over, it begs the question, why are we not making more progress?

Talk of reconciliation and allyship oftentimes focuses on all of the bad stuff that happened but perhaps what’s missing is an understanding of what Indigenous peoples’ are building back to and a greater awareness of the colonial systems which hold our communities in a state of oppression. When we only talk about the history, or the harm, or the relationship with non-Indigenous peoples, and not the profoundness of Indigenous ways of life, it is difficult for allies to grasp the extent of what was lost and now must be recovered. We aren’t just asking for inclusion or recognition, we are asking non-Indigenous peoples to stand with us as we build towards restoration of family, language, songs, stories, epistemologies, pedagogies, sciences, governance, kinship, land and a good life.

“Through my work with 4Rs, combined with my education and what I’m learning there, I can see how non-Indigenous people want to be part of the solutions, but there is still such a lack of understanding that needs to be built first before offering solutions.”

– Dani Lanouette, 4Rs Communications and Community Care Manager

When given a choice, reconciliation fails to be a priority

We often hear and receive requests from organizations and government departments desiring workshops and learning opportunities to meet their reconciliation “goals”. At the same time, we see that when given a choice, many still choose to opt-out of the learning, or passively participate, even when the experience is custom designed to help build capacity and solutions to the issues directly impacting them. The level of follow through and commitment to learning we find is limited in scope and dedication in particular by White settlers and people who are in positions of power and influence (which often are one in the same). Whereas folks with marginalized and intersecting identities, in frontline positions with less influence on organizational culture, decisions around funding, policy and program development etc., are often most engaged. In the context of a hierarchical organizational model, it’s clear how the power of having a choice to opt-out does little to serve justice for Indigenous peoples and does a lot to perpetuate burnout in program staff. On a personal level, for the 4Rs team, it was disappointing to us that despite the hours we dedicated to designing a meaningful and relevant experience, some people still couldn’t set aside a couple of hours a month to be in this work with us. 

Unfortunately, White fragility is still a thing we (BIPOC) have to deal with

Beyond not making reconciliation a priority, we have also witnessed White settlers use their feelings of shame, guilt and fear of saying something wrong as reasons to opt-out or not participate in conversation. This looked like criticizing the facilitation process, or failing to meaningfully engage out of fear of saying something wrong or appearing ignorant or racist, as well as depersonalizing the work & issues in order to avoid confronting their own history and pattern of behaviours. Even within a supported space for learning, we continued to see people finding excuses for not committing their time towards these opportunities for personal growth and organizational transformation. It is important to name that when this happens, this is a function of privilege and a misuse of rank and power. It is also an action which attempts to center their discomfort over the real experiences of violence in Indigenous and other racialized communities.

“Privilege is having the choice to stay comfortable, to do the minimum, stay silent, remain ignorant and risk nothing. Indigenous peoples rarely have this choice.”

– Jessica Bolduc, 4Rs Executive Director

Despite the irony, most reconciliation labour still falls on Indigenous people

There continues to be an incredibly extractive nature to reconciliation work as the labour of educating, building awareness and relationships, and fighting for justice is all led by Indigenous people. Folks seem to have interpreted “Indigenous-led” to mean Indigenous peoples must do everything from offering a land acknowledgement, to giving a history lesson, to lobbying for policy change. The general expectation still seems to be that in order for some people to change behaviour, or use their power and influence, they have to be told clearly, and kindly, how to do reconciliation work so “they don’t mess it up”. This desire for step-by-step guidance and emotional coddling leaks energy from BIPOC colleagues who are stepping into these spaces with actions and offers to co-create more ethical programming and equity for the Indigenous communities that they are serving. The result is a perpetual phase of educating White settlers who keep their learning intellectual while never putting it into practice or actively co-creating the solutions that are needed. Even worse, there are those who call themselves allies, but instead come to amass knowledge about Indigenous issues for their personal benefit, and social or professional advancement. Throughout this process, we see how disproportionately the work still falls on Indigenous people which is going to lead to us burning out if we continue to serve others’ needs and not our own. A big part of reconciliation, therefore, is a recognition of the reality that Indigenous people are experiencing, while also doing this work for others.

We seem to be missing one of the 4Rs – Reciprocity

More often than not, in virtual spaces, we find that there is a missing sense of reciprocity in the conversation we are having that limits us being able to move towards generating ideas and new knowledge together. Although Indigenous peoples are putting care and intention into creating online spaces for non-Indigenous people’s learning, we recognize that we are not yet in a place where we are co-creating together. The learning community experience highlighted to our team that, while there are some people who are willing to put in the work, there are still people who stay silent on calls, never turn their cameras on, multi-task and engage passively. Our desire to learn through relationship, stories and experience has had our team reflecting on how impactful allyship can be, once the labour of educating is shared and non-Indigenous people join in the process of co-creating solutions that meet the needs and realities of the youth and communities we are working with. This need for co-creation and collaborative learning of course, looks much different than co-opting knowledge and ideas and monopolizing or taking up too much space in the conversation and action to follow.

“There is a need to approach reconciliation work in ways that builds better allies but honours who we are as Indigenous people.”

– Thomas Snow, 4Rs Equity Educator

You get what you put in

At 4Rs we do our best to embrace the complexities involved in cross-cultural experiences and conversations; we understand that learning is a lifelong journey, as is the journey of building and changing relationships. To own your own experience in our shared work of reconciliation means that you get what you put in, and others will also benefit from your presence and intention, creating feedback loops for generative learning and reciprocity. So it is not only what we do but also how we do it that will create the most change. It is with that in mind we want to share that a great appreciation from the learning community experience, was how people of colour showed up in support of other people of colour, and how much we got from sharing and giving so humbly, pieces of our stories to one another. In the end, what was taken away was a powerful opportunity for our own personal growth and decolonization; challenging and inspiring willing participants to learn new things from their own cultural perspectives and lived experiences (including willing White settlers).

Where can we go from here?

Throughout the past year, our team has been reflecting on what co-creation can look like. We wanted to leave you with these community guidelines that we used with the learning community this past year, that could be put into practice in different ways for readers who wish to engage more authentically this year in your support of Indigenous justice:

Facing truth – reconciliation is too often abstracted, vague and general. We must be open to facing the truth of how histories of colonization have led to harmful & unsafe present realities for Indigenous youth.

A trauma-informed and intersectional approach – being mindful of the ways that different communities are entering into these conversations, we must ground our work in respect and humility, in an awareness of intergenerational trauma, and the impact of colonial violence on more than just Indigenous communities.

Indigenous-centred learning – getting comfortable with other ways of knowing and learning, will help allies get the most from their learning experiences. This includes examining and dispelling the homogenization of Indigenous knowledge and ensuring that Indigenous culture is expressed and shared in a respectful way.

Creating safe(r) spaces for facilitators and brave(r) spaces for learners – facing off against racism and unconscious bias is dangerous. As Indigenous peoples delivering reconciliation-based content we look to create spaces of accountability and vulnerability, where intentions matter and the emphasis is placed on creating a space where wisdom is shared in reciprocal ways that enable us to develop new knowledge & insights together.

An honest and truthful look at our limiting beliefs – by leaning into our feelings around fear, guilt, shame, pride, safety, sacrifice etc. we will be better prepared for the discussions that follow with a sense of responsibility, compassion, empathy and understanding.

Challenging white supremacy – embracing our discomfort around the topic, reframing these feelings as a desirable outcome of decolonization and a positive indicator of personal growth. For Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, this is also an opportunity to unpack the ways in which we may also have benefited from, and continue to perpetuate systems of white supremacy in our work and lives. 

An invitation to form lasting and reciprocal relationships – we don’t just want allies to learn about reconciliation, we want you to actively contribute to it. We hope future allies will go beyond a passive and transactional exploration of the content, to engaging as a community member who is accountable and acting in ways that are reciprocal.