Addressing reconciliation in your organization? Ask yourself these questions.

With National Truth and Reconciliation Day approaching Sept. 30, many organizations are asking themselves how they can contribute to the repairing of relations between settlers and Indigenous Peoples.  

Marlene Orr, Executive Director at Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), took the time to chat with REACH about what sincere reconciliation might look like in the context of organizational actions.


Is your land acknowledgement sincere? 

There’s a lot of talk in our communities about reconciliation and a little bit of resentment. For example: land acknowledgements, what do they do? You acknowledge this is our land but then nothing changes. 

Whoever is doing the land acknowledgement needs to do their own learning about the history of this land and write the acknowledgement themselves. Whatever you do, don’t create a standard land acknowledgement that everyone at the organization uses every time. Be authentic, invest in researching who the people of this land are.

How are you affecting cultural accessibility?

There’s a fine line between allyship and co-opting our culture. 

There’s an intention with a lot of individuals and groups that really want to understand, be good allies. 

But there’s a line, that line looks like this: in the rush to be good allies our elders are being asked to do a lot of work in the non-Indigenous community. This is good, there should be education that can be provided to settlers. However, I’m hard pressed to find any Indigenous organization that isn’t struggling to bring in cultural people because of the demand on our elders' time from settlers who have more financial resources than indigenous organizations. 

Are those same opportunities being offered to Indigenous people? We’re in the process of change, and we still have many people who are disenfranchised culturally, especially in urban areas. So our elders are trying to provide those teachings and the people they serve are struggling because our elders need to take care of themselves financially as well. So our elders will provide teachings and ceremonies to non-Indigenous groups.

If your organization is creating cultural opportunities for staff, ask yourself how you can extend those opportunities to Indigenous people in the community as well.  Are you inviting our people from outside your organization, from the community, to attend? How are you ensuring indigenous people who maybe have never been given that opportunity have the same access that you have?

In your eagerness to understand, are you actually taking away from the opportunity for healing of that intergenerational trauma? 

Are you trying to control the culture?

If a non-Indigenous organization  decides they’re going to provide services to Indigenous people that are culturally based, who is managing that? We can have programs, ceremonies, but if that is being controlled by a non-Indigenous person or organization there’s a risk of bastardizing our culture. 

For example: there was a national organization that felt that they were in the best position to manage Indigenous cultural programs, so they hired elders, and the elders brought ceremonies and teachings. Over time, the organization began to impact cultural practices. There was a tight budget, so that feast that follows a ceremony, they wouldn’t pay for that anymore. They didn’t understand why we have a feast attached to the ceremony and the fundamental importance of that. Did you ask the elder what they think about that? There are reasons why things are done the way they are done. That feast was a pivotal part of the ceremony.


If you are offering cultural programming, do you know how to determine who is a cultural elder and who is not? Do you know what to look for, what to ask and how to verify a person’s standing as an elder in the community? Does that individual carry teachings from the traditional area you are looking to have that elder work in? 

For our people, if they start following someone who wasn't verified correctly and then realize they don’t actually have the knowledge, when that moment comes it causes a lot of harm and often our people will fall off the cultural healing track because of it. From our perspective, on a spiritual level, there’s tremendous harm that’s caused when people aren’t authentic.


Are you helping build capacity?


We have very limited capacity at our organizations. NCSA is one of only two provincial Indigenous organizations in Alberta and we’re the biggest. We’ve been around for 53 years but we still have capacity struggles. 

For example, most indigenous organizations do not have a grant writer and do not have a fund development program. Why? Often, funding will go from being given to Indigenous organizations to work with Indigenous people in our way, to a non-Indigenous organization working with Indigenous people in their way, because we don’t have capacity. Intentional or not, this furthers the colonial aim of assimilation. If Indigenous organizations don’t have the capacity, we need to ask how we can give them that capacity instead of moving those contracts to settler organizations. 

If you are an ally as an organization, what are you doing to grow our capacity? Being a true ally could look like saying to funders, listen, we know that capacity doesn’t exist in Indigenous communities. Rather than deliver this service ourselves, we’re going to partner with an Indigenous organization and help them grow their capacity because they're the experts in working with their own people. 

Are you offering equal economic opportunities to Indigenous contractors? 

When it comes to business in the community, Indigenous businesses are often overlooked or discriminated against. 

Are you giving access to the same opportunities to Indigenous contractors as you are to settler businesses? And I’ll give kudos to the City of Edmonton, because they’re moving on this. Our businesses don’t have the same access to contracts. Too often, they only get opportunities when it’s specifically earmarked for the Indigenous community. Often on day-to-day transactions, Indigenous people are consistently excluded.

Are you being inclusive or exclusive? 

Many settler organizations want to get work and do their part, but may not know where to start. In their rush to take action, they may sometimes be doing more harm than good. 

I don’t think people think ‘how can we exclude Indigenous people?’ But by not including indigenous people in the development of processes and policies you might be doing that anyways.

In any settler organization, there are many perspective differences in worldview that are often invisible to the organization. This is why it is essential to consider worldview, and have an honest conversation with Indigenous communities before taking actions to address reconciliation in policies, practices or programs.

Ask yourself these questions. Good intentions can often cause harm. Let’s think about this.



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