Interview with Dr. Fraser, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta
The following is the second in a two-part series. To read part 1, Click here.
By Jienan Chen.
My last blog post summarized some of the background information I found on the topic of allyship and reconciliation. I wanted to do some groundwork on my own before I spoke to Dr. Fraser, so that I had a personal stake in grappling with this topic on my own. But I still had some questions and needed some clarity on the best way to continue. Dr. Fraser was kind enough to guide me through this topic.
I began my interview by asking about the topic of “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” being too broad. I had done some research on LGBTQ2S+ communities in Canada not too long ago. It is now almost common for people to include their pronouns in their personal introductions to remove any ambiguity over how they would like to be addressed. In this manner, I asked Dr. Fraser if it might be helpful if Indigenous people add the Nation that they are from in their personal introductions. She remarked that this nationality is not quite equivalent to pronouns; addressing someone with the wrong pronoun counts as sexual harassment, whereas the stakes are certainly very different in terms of correct nationality. But as more nations are claiming their heritage as a way to engage in language retention and sovereignty, it is important for settlers to understand that outside of the Métis and Inuit peoples, there are more than 600 distinct Indigenous Nations across the country.
For educational and social purposes, Dr. Fraser believes that giving one’s heritage in a (verbal) personal introduction should be something that everyone, not just Indigenous individuals, should take into consideration. The fact is that we are always in relationship with each other. So far, according to Fraser, the problem is that while racialized Canadians seem always expected to go to the nitty-gritty when giving their family background, Canadians of Caucasian descent fly by as just “being White.” Simple and sweet; however, in Dr. Fraser’s eyes, this simply normalizes whiteness. So, she recommends that we all should learn about our family histories. Afterwards, we should reflect on how that history may tie in with Canada’s colonial past and present.
I followed up this question with another to do with identity—this time of the land we were sitting on. In my research, I came across the suggestion to say “‘the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada instead” instead of “‘Canada’s Indigenous Peoples’” or “‘Our Indigenous Peoples.’” For me, “‘the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada instead” was a bit of a mouthful. In my research, I had come across a map of Canada marked with place names in the languages of various Nations. I asked Dr. Fraser if it could be plausible to opt for something such as “the Indigenous People of misâskwatôminiskâhk (Saskatoon)” instead. Her opinion was that “Canada” itself stems from that famous encounter between Jacques Cartier, when he confused the Algonquin word for “village”—kanata—as the name of the land. In this mindset, by referring to the entire country as Canada sets it within an Algonquin lens. But overall, she made it clear that it depends on preference; some Indigenous people might like the idea of an original placename being used when referring to them while some may not. What is important is for possessive language to be ridden out. Personally, she prefers “Indigenous Peoples in the Settler State of Canada,” which acknowledges the country’s settler history.
Next, I decided to address what made me nervous. I read her Ward’s statement. She explained to me that it all depends on context. For instance, in conversations with Elders or people whose knowledge one is drawing from, some of that knowledge might be sacred knowledge—knowledge which has been passed down by Elders or Knowledge Keepers, which is not meant to be shared. Usually, it depends on who is being asked whether the information can be shared. Information which is reconciliation-related, on creating good relationships, or on allyship can generally be shared. (This made me feel better.)
I was curious to know if everyone can be an ally because I saw plenty of evidence of un-allied thinking and actions in my research. The short answer is that while everyone is capable of becoming an ally, according to Dr. Fraser, allyship is not work that everyone is willing to undertake. Openness to thinking about Indigenous perspectives and willingness to participate in reconciliation is fundamental. As a public intellectual, she has spoken all over Canada and has received comments expressing denial of the residential school system. It is this kind of denial which is damaging to Indigenous knowledge. Dr. Fraser recommends that allies work with people who are not deniers to build the impetus for change among those who are receptive. In this manner, the spirit of allyship can remain as pure and alive as it can be in everyone.
Since my research stated that allyship should not be done out of guilt, I was curious what mentality one should have when deciding to assume allyship work. Dr. Fraser agreed that guilt should not be a motivating factor, at least in the long term. It is normal for many settlers to feel guilty as they research their family history, as Dr. Fraser recommends. But the end goal is for people to come to a good place in their hearts and act out of a desire to improve relationships and build equity. Fundamentally, truth and reconciliation is not about making people feel guilty. As she explained, “the past is the past, but [Canada] is still exploiting colonialism.” People should approach their duty to rectify the system with feelings of excitement to do good, empathy with working with people who are oppressed by many structures in Canada (such as Indigenous people and those involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement), and to feel honoured to be on this journey. Then Dr. Fraser told me something that reminded me of what Dr. Charles Keim from the Business department at MacEwan University said about motivation in the workplace: many Indigenous nations believe that if one does not approach their work with a happy heart, then what they do is ineffective.
I had imagined that reconciliation work happens in places like schools or Parliament; however, Dr. Fraser stressed that reconciliation can happen in many places, such as in a family, workplace, at the Edmonton city hall, at the Legislature, or wherever one is in relationship with others. There are plenty of opportunities to engage in this work, and allyship—as Crawford stated—can be exercised in many forms. Opportunities can arise in the moment, and one must be ready to act when they do.
My resources all emphasized that allies must do some learning on the history of Indigenous Peoples on their own. However, it is no secret that many resources could be biased. I asked Dr. Fraser to recommend some that people could begin with in their ongoing self-education. She commented that I probably found a lot of existing information in my research, and that it is simply a matter of sitting down and looking through some of them. To get me started, she gave me the following list:
- The University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada MOOC (which was taken by Schitt’s Creek actor Dan Levy in 2020). Fraser herself took the course. https://www.ualberta.ca/admissions-programs/online-courses/indigenous-canada/index.html
- The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website: https://nctr.ca/
- Yellowhead Institute, which is located outside of Toronto at the Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). They have a lot of information on treaties and land claims. https://yellowheadinstitute.org/
- The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Foundation: https://downiewenjack.ca/
Dr. Fraser also suggested that one should also read books by Indigenous authors (However, keep in mind that some authors—such as Joseph Boyden—appropriate an Indigenous identity, so it is important to examine if the authors are truly authentic in how they identify) to hear and gain understanding from Indigenous voices speaking from their own experiences and history.
While there is a lot of information online; however, she explained that sometimes not being able to access everything online is a good thing. There is a Cree concept called wahkohtowin, which translates literally as “kinship.” From his understanding, Traditional Knowledge Keeper from Samson Cree Nation Maskwasis Boysis (Little Bear) explains it further as:
…all living things are connected, to each other and to the Creator (the higher power). I cannot exist without you and you cannot exist without me. What I do affects you and others, and what you do affects me. Everything we do has an effect on others and on our world. It means that everything has a spirit and that’s how we are connected to each other as well as to Creator. Native practises and beliefs honor the saying by treating each other, and what Mother Nature and Father Sky has given us with respect. The concept of everything being related is central to the Native culture. The image of the Creator lives inside of us and we need to recognize it in others. We are all children of Mother Earth, we are all brothers, sisters, and cousins. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. The weak, the strong, the rich, the poor, the young, the old. We are all related. We relate through love and hate, joy and pain, life and death. We are related because we share the same breath. We are related because we are from the same place. We have the same Creator.
As part this interconnectivity, Dr. Fraser explained that it relates to people learning from each other…what we were sort of doing. From this, I concluded that research is only the first step. After gaining some understanding, the next step is to interact, and learn, in relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
In her recommendations, Dr. Fraser also answered a question that I had with regards to the 94 Calls to Action. Going through them, I felt unable to realize any of them on an individual level. She told me that the 94 Calls were prepared mainly for governments and corporations—big institutions—to carry out. Inspired by them, in 2017, Dr. Fraser and Dr. Sara Komarnisky put together the “150 Acts of Reconciliation for Canada’s 150.” According to Dr. Fraser, these are intended as actions that anyone can do. They are as simple as, for instance, (No. 11) “Choose one plant or flower in your area and learn how Indigenous people use(d) it.” Some of the actions could make one feel uncomfortable, such as (No. 28) “Ask yourself if stereotypes about Indigenous people align with your beliefs” or (Nos. 30-31) to consider one’s family history and “how [it is] part of a larger system that sought to dispossess Indigenous people from their ancestral lands.” That said, it is important to consider again that “the process of allyship is not always a comfortable one,” says Raye.
Although my questions were answered, Dr. Fraser—perhaps being an educator and a mother of a young child—could see that the amateur journalist before her still felt uneasy about what I was doing. She suggested that I embrace my identity as a settler, that I have been researching a subject which makes me uncomfortable, and that despite my research, I am not an expert. It might seem odd, but this advice gave me the comfort to return to my office in Baker Centre and organize my notes. The comfort came from realizing that it is alright to feel uncomfortable. However, to not accept it and to push against it was to not accept allyship—the way it really is, not just a glossy Instagram version of it.
I decided to read the “150 Acts.” I strongly recommend that you do so too. Here are some actions that I selected that small but busy organizations such as OSP could consider—to consider or implement inside or outside the workplace:
- “1. Learn the land acknowledgement in your region.”
- “13. Learn a greeting in a local Indigenous language.”
- “16. Support Black Lives Matter.”
- “19. Seriously consider your own position as a settler Canadian. Do you uphold practices that contribute to the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples?”
- “22. Donate to the Emerging Indigenous Voices”
- “25. When discussing LGBTQ issues, always include two-spirited peoples (LGBTQ2S+).”
- “26. Invite your local reconciliation organization to hold a KAIROS Blanket Exercise at your place of employment.”
- “28. Ask yourself if stereotypes about Indigenous people align with your beliefs (for more on stereotypes, refer to Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes).”
- “32. Learn more. Talk less.”
- “35. Learn the difference between Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, Métis, and Inuit.”
- “39. Gently counter racist or stereotypical comments with fact-based information [wherever you are].”
- “43. Show your support on social media. ‘Like’ pages and ‘share’ posts that support Indigenous endeavours.”
- “46. Read the TRC. Seriously. Start with the Calls to Action, then the Executive Summary. You can even listen to it online at #ReadtheTRC. Better yet, invite your friends or colleagues to read it with you.”
- “48. Hire Indigenous people for positions at your workplace.”
- “49. If you live in an area where there is a Treaty relationship, read the treaty document.”
- “53. Find an organization local that has upcoming programming where you can learn more. In many areas, this is the Native Friendship Centre.”
- “70. When travelling, know whose land you are visiting while on vacation or travelling for work.”
- “71. Do more than google.”
- “72. If you are talking about or researching Indigenous Peoples, have you included any of their voices?”
- “73. Support Indigenous parents by learning the issues that they are faced with, which are often scenarios that settler Canadians are granted. For instance, the use of Indigenous names on government documents and how that can be problematic. But also how these ‘issues’ can be resolved by speaking out!”
- “75. Yes, this all might seem scary! Keep going, if you are committed.”
- “82. Ever wonder why only English and French are Canada’s official languages when there are at least sixty Indigenous languages in this land?”
- “85. Remember that good intentions can be harmful too.”
- “90. Hold businesses accountable to your personal ethics and ideologies.”
- “91. Do not assume that you are entitled to attend a local sweat or other spiritual ceremony.”
- “92. BUT if you are invited to ceremony—definitely go. This is an honour!”
- “93. If you actually want to see the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people change, [then] commit to making reconciliation a part of your every-day ethos.”
- “95. Consider the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Chelsea Vowel has a good blogpostabout this.”
- “98. Learn the original names of places. Learn what places were and are important to Indigenous people.”
- “100. Consider the words that you use. For example, do not call your group of friends a ‘tribe,’ describe a meeting as a ‘pow-wow,’ or call a non-Indigenous leader ‘Chief.’”
- Read the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Our government has committed to implementing it.
- “108. Read the Indian Act.”
- “113. Start your own Heart Garden with messages of support for residential school survivors.”
- “118. Share [“150 Acts of Reconciliation for Canada’s 150”] on social media.”
- “119. Look for and share the positive stories about Indigenous people, not just the negative ones.”
- “120. Invite local Indigenous people in to your event or organization.”
- “122. Give an honorarium if you expect an Indigenous person to contribute their time and effort.”
- “125. Want to incorporate Indigenous elements or policies into your workplace? Hire an Indigenous consultant.”
- “127. Seek opportunities to collaborate that span forms of both Indigenous knowledge and western knowledge.”
- “128. Update your email signature to reflect the territory you live and work on.”
- “129. Encourage the institution you work for or study at to formally acknowledge the territory.”
- “139. Actively commit to eliminating stereotypes about Indigenous identities by gently correcting people. For instance, being “mixed blood” does not make one Métis.
- “149. Understand that reconciliation is not about ‘feeling guilty.’ It is about knowledge, action, and justice.”
- “150. Why stop at 150? …Build on this list or start ad share your own.”
The last one is crucial. What is important to note about the “150 Acts” is the fact that it is not a checklist. As Dr. Fraser stressed to me, reconciliation is an ongoing process. Taking part in it is not a matter of one doing what is on the list and thinking that one’s job is done. “It is a way of life,” states the “Indigenous Allyship Toolkit.” Therefore, it should not be thought of as a mortgage or debt, or as a means for furthering one’s self-interest. Similarly, it should not be performative—an empty gesture that might result in some good self-publicity. Additionally, it is not a label that one glues onto oneself. Instead, it is an honour that one earns by doing this work sincerely. But that should not be the goal. So, with all this said, are you willing to be an ally? Why should a settler consider becoming an ally? Crawford says that in her childhood, she never told her friends that she was Indigenous because of all the appalling things that they said about Indigenous people. “It wasn’t ‘safe enough’ for her to be herself, she said.” With allies present, “the world a safer place to be our true selves.” If one cannot relate to the term “ally,” Dr. Blackstock suggests that one think of it as being a good friend or neighbor to somebody. She points out that kindness costs nothing, and that it is one of the most beautiful things we possess to give to the world to make a difference. So, will you join in solidarity with her and Spirit Bear in learning about injustices in the world and doing something about it? Personally, I think that we all should. However, in the end, it is your choice. To those who are willing, in DeRoy-Olson’s words, “from listening and learning to reading and supporting, how will you be a good ally?”
For more information on the topics and people mentioned in this blogpost, consider the following resources:
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