How to Build Good Relations with Indigenous Peoples: An Interview Series (Part 2)

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Building good relations with Indigenous Peoples is an imperative to sustainable business, but many companies struggle to create equitable, trust-based, long-lasting partnerships that meet the needs of all parties.

In our last blog post, Sxwpilemaát Siyám – also known as Chief Leanne Joe, a Hereditary Chief of the Squamish Nation in British Columbia – provided her insights into what “good relations with Indigenous Peoples” can look like, how to initiate engagement, and gave examples of leading (and not so great) practices.

This blog post focuses on what comes after that initial engagement. We discussed some of the specific actions that your company can take towards embedding an understanding of Indigenous worldviews into how you operate and your approach to building capacity with Indigenous communities.


Brandon – How can companies ensure that the benefits they receive from conducting their business in the traditional territories of Indigenous Peoples are shared equitably with those communities?

Chief Leanne Joe – It starts with asking what the First Nation sees as equity. Playing on an equal playing field, especially in this economic system, comes down to allowing and providing space for that First Nation community to participate as equals with the same supports. We look at systems in a colonial context, and who is the most supported within those systems? Generally, it's non-Indigenous persons, even within an Indigenous space. Companies need to be super mindful of this and hold up a mirror to really look at what achieving that equity means for the organization. It can be really hard to look at. And even harder to do something to change it. But the reality is that Indigenous Nations are always going to seek out this equity. If we don’t, it’s our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren that will have to do the work. And of course, we as First Nations people also have our own stuff that we have to work through and heal from, forgive and transform from. We have generations of trauma and grief and loss and pain and sadness that we have to work through. We're still battling an Indian Act, we're battling losing our languages. There are the impacts of more grave sites1 being revealed weekly, or of dealing with an expired [Indigenous] status card,2 because we become expired every five years, or fighting with the government to get my son's status – these are daily occurrences for Indigenous people. When you learn about these challenges, you understand the importance of the relationship.

Brandon – Indigenous Peoples have unparalleled historical knowledge of the environments and spaces where they reside. How can businesses best work in partnership with Indigenous communities to understand and address the impacts that they might be having on these spaces?

Chief Leanne Joe – Let the Indigenous Nations lead. Let that worldview, that knowledge, that wisdom, that intergenerational learning lead, and be willing to be open and understanding and working differently. And, again, that's not easy, right – people are coming out of post-secondary education or trainings with a very settler-colonial view on capitalism and global economics. I'm a believer in community economic development in regional spaces and local purchasing. That is reflective of an Indigenous worldview. All of our medicines, all of our meat and fish – it comes from our ecosystems where we live, work, and play. An important space that needs to shift is our educational systems. They have to embed that same knowledge and wisdom and allow Indigenous individuals to be able to teach in a much more meaningful way.

Brandon – Do you think there are things that businesses can be doing to help advance some of these shifts, such as – for example – in the field of education?

Chief Leanne Joe – Totally. One thing in that respect would be language funding. My identity comes from that space of language and culture; without language, I don't know who I am. In relationships with First Nation communities, thinking outside of your traditional economic development means finding opportunities to make the greatest positive impact on future generations to come, and the thinking of these individuals as future leaders. With education and language, that can mean sponsorships or scholarships for Indigenous learning, or funding the development of schools – ones based on the knowledge and culture and language of that community, their own school that isn't colonized. This is very different to saying “we’ll sponsor six students to go to post-secondary,” or to otherwise perpetuating colonialized learning. Again, it comes down to businesses really looking at and engaging with the communities and thinking outside of the box. When it comes to impacts, that means asking “what could we be supporting, or helping build the capacity for?”

Brandon – What are some of the ways in which businesses can include and embed these traditional perspectives and ways of thinking into their decision-making?

Chief Leanne Joe – One, hire Indigenous people. You can't embed what you don't know. You need to create space for Indigenous participation, and this means embedding Indigenous people at every level. You want people working throughout the organization: recruiting, hiring, and retaining Indigenous participation in your workforce. And then, most importantly, is the advancement of these individuals within the organization to the C-suite and board and executive management level, where influence is going to be greater on decision-making. Your board should not have a single Indigenous person on it – it should have a few. One ‘token Indian’ on your board doesn't make for reconciliation – there's no support for them, because they're the only one with that worldview. Often these people are looked at to be the “reconciler.” You’ll find that many Indigenous people are very tired of being looked at to solely expend immense cultural and emotional tax in the space of helping the business reconcile. What this comes down to is transforming systems, and the way to do that is to really embed those Indigenous participants within the workforce and allow them to transform. I hold on to my culture – our culture survives because of ongoing transformation and the ability to transform. Our system of values remains the same, even if our ways of doing change.

Brandon – Beyond embedding this knowledge, are there other ways that companies can support the work of Indigenous Peoples in maintaining their resilience and that of the systems around them?

Chief Leanne Joe – You have to be able to support outside of your own organization, beyond making and changing policies and employment and HR practices. For example, procurement: how much are you purchasing from Indigenous entrepreneurs? Have you shifted policy to make a commitment to purchasing goods and services from Indigenous communities? Also, how much education have you provided to all of your organization, especially board and senior executive management? Do they understand the true history of colonization in this country and the impact of Crown-Indigenous relations in Canada? Do they know what the Indian Act is? Are there Indigenous people in your circle? If not, why not? If you're talking about wanting to do business with us, there are many things that need to be addressed in supporting entrepreneurial development, such as supporting training programs, supporting employment within communities. It’s a journey, and looking at it holistically is the key.

Brandon – There's still so much work that needs to be done towards advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Are there gaps in knowledge or support that you think would help businesses to take positive action? 

Chief Leanne Joe – The willingness of many entities across Canada is there, but I hear the same things over and over: “I don't know where to start. I don't know what questions I should be asking. I don't know how to build relationships.” To me, those are just excuses to not do anything. At the end of the day, you just do it, you just try. It's okay to fail. It's okay to say “I'm going to do better, I want to learn, I want to grow.” The right thing is to just jump in and reach out. If you create space for the Indigenous community to lead and tell you what they want and what they think their future entails, you can start seeing where you as an entity can start contributing and creating space for supporting capacity-building, for providing funding, hiring, rights shifting, and more. There's just so many spaces, but it requires you to actually start building relationships. It also requires you to empower those that are doing the work to be able to make decisions as well within that space. If you have a champion within your organization, support them wholeheartedly. They are so keen and excited and passionate, and they are going to commit in ways that somebody next to them may not. You have to let them matter.

Brandon – Companies that are taking these steps want to be able to demonstrate that they're doing this work, but they're often unsure about how they should be speaking and writing about their relationships with Indigenous Peoples. What recommendations would you have for sustainability change agents and leaders who are communicating about those relationships and trying to convey their development and advancement?

Chief Leanne Joe – Ask yourself “what story do we want to be telling? What is the most important thing for us to be sharing? And with whom?” Once again, when you're talking about partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, it’s really important for the Nation to lead that space. True reconciliation means supporting the Nations or communities who don’t have the capacity to do that, creating some sort of development or relationship that helps build that communications capacity so that they can do it successfully for themselves – now, and in the future, and for the benefit of both parties. If we’re talking about storytelling, the voice always has to come from the First Nation community. We have engaged in storytelling for time immemorial, and will continue to for time immemorial, and how we do that is going to be based on language and space and place, as well as the reciprocity and relationships between them.

In our next blog, we look at specific resources that can support your people across your company to help build greater understanding of systemic discrimination towards Indigenous Peoples in Canada and to learn more about respectful business conduct and practices that can help you build stronger relationships.

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1 Throughout its history, the Canadian Indian residential school system saw many deaths due to physical and sexual abuse, neglect, disease, and other causes. Estimates range from 3,200 to 6000 children. The issue of unmarked graves received renewed attention in May 2021, when approximately 200 “probable burials” were discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School. Since that time, more that 2,000 probable unmarked graves at more than a dozen sites across Canada have been discovered.

2 An Indian status card is government ID that identifies someone as a “status Indian” as defined by the federal Indian Act. Indian status does not expire, but the cards do. Adult status cards expire every 5 years, youth status cards (18 years and under) every 2 years.