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First Steps to Reconciliation

What Does it Mean to Be an Ally?

Blogpost by Jienan Chen

With thanks to the academics, activists, and students that put together the resources that I consulted for my research, and with special thanks to Dr. Crystal Fraser and Avery Letendre, who took time out of their busy schedules to chat with me and to recommend some resources. Dr Fraser is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Avery Letendre is a Continuing Education & Online Project Manager in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. I am grateful that they so generously shared their expertise and lived knowledge with me.

September 30, 2022

My name is Jienan Chen, and I am a Han Chinese citizen of Canada. As a settler, my understanding of Indigenous Peoples and their histories has hitherto come from four primary sources: films (e.g., CBC and PBS documentaries), art (e.g., paintings by Paul Kane or Allen Sapp), books (e.g., by C. J. Taylor), and my schooling (e.g., social studies). Because my teachers in Saskatoon on Treaty 6 territory were fairly dedicated to teaching these topics every year and in my youth, I had an unusual interest in researching history for my age, I felt, until recently, that I had a decent understanding of the Indigenous Peoples living in Canada. But then I was asked to learn and write about how I, as a settler, could be an ally, and discovered that I still have a lot to learn.

The term “ally” has been used a lot presently in relation to truth and reconciliation. While I have always experienced that term used in military and geo-political contexts, evidently, in this case, “ally” means something different, but what exactly? As I am probably not the only one who does not fully understand the meaning of “allyship”, I began my research here first.

From what I found, “allyship” has several definitions that are in many ways similar with each other. To begin with, I found a marvellous article and video from Kids CBC — to ease myself into the research and to feel young at heart—by Isabel DeRoy-Olson, a grade eleven citizen of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation and Annishabe from Manitoba. In her quest to answer the question more than a year ago that I too was asking, she interviewed the owner of Future Ancestors Services—Calgarian Métis-Jamaican afro-indigenous activist and educator Larissa Crawford, and the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society — Indigenous educator, activist, and community leader Dr. Cindy Blackstock, a member Gitksan First Nation. She held in her hands Spirit Bear, a character who represents “all the First Nations children and young people who help us at the Caring Society.”

In DeRoy-Olson’s video, the definition of being an ally is shown on the screen as “…to support and stand by others when you see injustice.” Dr. Blackstock expands on this, explaining that an ally is an individual who will stand with someone “in the realization of [one’s] rights” and to learn more about injustice—which she and Spirit Bear are committed to doing. Why? Although it may not affect everyone, Dr. Blackstock believes that the fact that injustices exist means that we are “not living up to humanity’s full potential.” Crawford feels too that the definition is “something we do” rather than a series of words that can be inserted in a dictionary. Kortanie Kahwennahawi Raye—who is a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Inuk community project assistant at the Montreal Indigenous Community Network (MICN) from Kahnawake, interviewed for a 2021 CBC Montreal article that I read next—agrees, stating that “it’s an ongoing practice.” Mentioned in the article is the Indigenous Ally Toolkit”. In it, the definition of “ally” is written as “about disrupting oppressive spaces by educating others on the realities and histories of marginalized people.” Thus, despite the differences in vocabulary, clearly to be an ally means to perform certain actions. But what kind of actions exactly?

To start finding answers to that question, I watched a video produced by the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta called “How To [sic] Be A [sic] Good Ally.” After watching it a few times, I organized the points into eleven broad categories, into which I placed some of the points that I found in the other resources that I consulted prior:

Listen More: talk less:

Dr. Nykkie Lugosi-Schimpf—a Red River Métis-East European Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies—says that good allies “[do] a lot more listening than a lot more talking… [are aware of oneself], and…listen to what others have to say.” Dr. Blackstock believes that someone who wants to learn and put in the work will “ask to be guided to be part of the solution.” Dr. Kim TallBear suggests that the time for an ally to talk is when they are within their own community.

Dr. Lugosi-Schimpf recommends for allies to “be aware of [oneself]…[and] listen to what others have to say rather than interjecting [with one’s] own opinion.” This connects with a very important point raised in the “Indigenous Allyship Toolkit”: one’s own opinions and values should not “hijack” the ones of Indigenous communities. The “Treaty 7 Indigenous Ally Toolkit” stipulates that allies should “respect cultural protocols and traditions,” such as smudging.

Be all right with people who do not want your help:

Dr. Lugosi-Schimpf also mentions that an ally must accept the fact that some people do not want their help. This is perfectly alright. However, the CBC Montreal article refers to Montreal Indigenous Community Network community project manager Stéphanie Héroux, a member of the Anishnaabe First Nation Peoples from Lac-Simon, Quebec. They remark that “[non-Indigenous People] want to help…but sometimes it’s becoming too much.” The fact is “overstepping the boundaries” can prove to be problematic and maybe vexatious.


Dr. Sharlene Jobin—a Cree-Métis member of Red Pheasant Cree First Nation in Treaty 6 Territory,  Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance, and Director of the Indigenous Governance and Partnership program—remarks that all Indigenous people should be “centered” in the conversation. Their representation in key decision-making structures is essential, and their wishes for how they want to see allyship carried out can guide our actions in a local context.

Reconciliation is not the responsibility of Indigenous Peoples:

Dr. Kim TallBear—a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota and descendant of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, a Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society—states that reconciliation is more than inclusion. It is necessary that people take the initiative to change their thinking, and “education and listening is key to that.” Crawford urges that people must let go of preconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples.

Repatriation of Indigenous land and life:

Dr. TallBear explains that while “land back” is easier to understand, the concept of “life” is more difficult to grasp. She thinks of it in broad terms and considers working with Indigenous scientists to “[pull] resources out of dominant institutions to help build capacity in Indigenous institutions.” In short, she states that “it might be pulling out other resources and capacities [to] enable Indigenous sovereignties.” This all connects (I think) to Blackstock saying that allies should make sure that First Nations people have a chance to live their lives the way they want to, and to feel proud of doing so.


Dr. Tasha Hubbard—a Cree Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, writer, and filmmaker from Peepeekisis First Nation in Treaty 4 Territory, with ties to Thunderchild First Nation in Treaty 6 Territory—says that people who want to genuinely be allies will put in some effort to do some research themselves. They will refrain from calling an Indigenous person who they might know all the time for information regarding this and that. Isabel DeRoy-Olson mentions in her video how whenever her teachers or friends have questions regarding an Indigenous topic—such as reconciliation, they turn to her because of her identity. This can prove to be overwhelming, for she does not have all the answers.

The “Indigenous Allyship Toolkit” specifies that self-learning is an ongoing process and that “[one] will never truly be an expert on Indigenous challenges and realities, but [one] can work on allyship.” In the end, what is important is for allies to share what they learn in places where attitudes need to change.

Who gets to tell the stories of Indigenous Peoples:

Hubbard states further that one should be aware of and support Indigenous artists, story tellers, jewelry makers, film makers, etc. by purchasing their work, sharing knowledge of them, attending their shows, etc. The reason why this is important is that it can be challenging for Indigenous people to continue in “cultural expression.”

The fact is, Indigenous people and their stories have hitherto often been depicted or told by non-Indigenous people, such as the wandering artist Paul Kane. However, “Indigenous people have been living their reality for thousands and thousands of years, so [they] are the experts of [their] realities and [their] histories,” says Héroux. Again, “[one] will never truly be an expert on Indigenous challenges and realities, but [one] can work on allyship.” But it is imperative that people take on this sort of work not for purposes of ego or self-interest. When telling stories, they should be centered around the community.


Tanya Harnett—an artist and a Professor in the Department of Art and Design and the Faculty of Native Studies, member of Carry-The-Kettle First Nation—stresses that allies should use their privilege to support and empower Indigenous people to help without “othering” them. She gives the example in the video of, if there is a stage in a room, to not bring in an Indigenous person to the stage and say, “’I’ve brought this First Nations/Indigenous/M(m)étis person.’” Instead, say something akin to “’I’ve brought this person to help.’” The “Indigenous Allyship Toolkit” gives some ideas of how this can be carried out, such as “hiring Indigenous people to be involved in the creation and ownership of initiatives that are made about them and/or for them.”

Not really a set of pre-determined actions:

Dr. Matthew Wildcat—a Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) Assistant Professor in the Department of Political science from Maskwacis Alberta and member of Ermineskin First Nation—points out that an ally should learn what actions to do in a given context rather than a set of predetermined actions. One should accept the responsibility to vulnerable “in the act of learning [as part of the] process of decolonisation.” All the articles that I read make it a point to mention that allyship can be hard work. Raye is quoted in the CBC Montreal article as saying, “There’s a lot of people that will have to go through those uncomfortable moments where [one’s] going to ask the wrong questions and the wrong words will come out of [one’s] mouth.”

Think about the people you meet in your Canadian Travels:

Dr. Sean Robertson—a non-Indigenous Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies— remarks that when people travel in Canada, they are going through treaty lands or areas where treaties might be negotiated. (For reference, Edmonton is located on Treaty 6 territory.) Thus, travellers should think about where they are going. When they are there, they should meet and engage with the people. He also suggests engaging with civil society organizations and to see “how honest they are in their engagement with Indigenous Peoples and living up to those obligations.”

Building Relationships:

Dr. Robertson recommends too that one should build relationships with Indigenous people and to learn from them. Raye believes that an ally should surround themselves with people who can “respectfully” correct them. It is their responsibility to remain within this environment.

These are all actions that someone who wants to be an ally can consider.

Not all the information that I found in the resources that I consulted fit into these categories; however, there is no reason why everything should. Of these, the following leapt out at me:

  • The “Indigenous Allyship Toolkit” specifies that a settler is someone whose ancestors came to Canada, and whose descendants are benefiting from present manifestations of colonialism. Although I came to Canada with my family around twenty years ago, we fit within the bin of settlers.
  • There is a difference between the terms “Métis” and “métis.” Only the latter refers to people with mixed Indigenous ancestry. “Métis” are people whose families originated in the Red River or other historic Métis communities.
  • While the terms “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” are correct ways to refer to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, it is preferable to be specific about the nation that the individual comes from, if you know that information.
  • It is considered unacceptable to say “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples” or “Our Indigenous Peoples” because these wordings connote ownership—that the Indigenous Peoples are the possessions of Canada. The better wording is “the Indigenous Peoples of what we now call Canada.”
  • “If someone shares Indigenous stories, customs, or traditions with allies, that information or experience is a gift,” says Robyn Ward—the Director of People Operations at Animikii, who is a settler, in a 2019 Animikii article. “It does not give [one] permission to share or replicate the gift, especially for profit or mass production…copying, framing, or restructuring any part for profit or convenience is a boundary that should never be crossed.”
  • Actions of allyship should not stem from feelings of guilt.

Finally, I watched an interview with Sarah Midanik—the CEO of the Cheeney Wenjack Fund and a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta—who suggested that one should read the 94 Calls to Action, then realize a call that one resonates with. After doing so, I felt that I had a better understanding of allyship and reconciliation. Yet, with everything that I had read, seen, and heard, I felt as though I was a sailor lost in a sea of information. To navigate them, I realized that I should take DeRoy-Olson’s lead and talk with an experienced captain as it were to point me in the right direction. But I felt nervous to do so. Ward’s words shook me. After all, the information that the knowledgeable person would pass to me was going to end up in a blogpost; was this alright? Nonetheless, I (audaciously?) wrote to the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies requesting to speak with someone there. Avery Letendre kindly recommended that I contact Dr. Crystal Fraser—who is Gwichyà Gwich’in and originally from Inuvik and Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik in the Northwest Territories,and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Native Studies—for an interview. I did so, and Dr. Fraser kindly agreed to speak with me on the Main Quad on campus one afternoon.

Click here to read part 2 of Jienan's blogpost about his journey to reconciliation, starting with Jienan's interview with Dr. Fraser. She shares her perspectives with Jienan and provides some input into ways one could continue forward in a quest for reconciliation. We are grateful to Dr. Fraser for graciously taking time out of her day to support Jienan's and our understanding. 

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