Recognizing and implementing Indigenous diversity

Over the last two years, our Community Support team has been  supporting former students in Canada’s federally run Indian Day Schools to access compensation and restitution for this class action settlement. This requires a deep understanding of unique circumstances, context and cultural aspects of each community and a bespoke approach to community outreach and engagement, logistics and communications. We recognize the needs of each community and develop community-specific campaigns that would be relevant to our local audience, rather than blending various communities into one collective group.

Breaking the myth of Indigenous homogeneity

We begin with in-depth research on each Indigenous community, familiarizing ourselves with community news sites and having conversations with local partners. This shapes our understanding of the available local supports, claim form needs, language use, technology resources, schools’ histories, local events, culturally important activities, and members’ connection with the three distinct groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The aim is communications and outreach grounded in contextual understanding of the current and historical issues for that community.

Breaking the colonial lenses

Each team member is trained in cultural competency to learn about Indigenous society pre-contact, understand stories of sovereignty and Indigenous self-determination, and recognize how colonization has disrupted Indigenous culture. We also learn about the impact of intergenerational trauma, and how systemic discrimination persists today.

Piecing together cultural differences

Respecting local leaders and support workers’ ways of meeting and decision-making leads the way to supportive conversations.  Our understanding is that most Indigenous societies are community oriented. Priorities may shift depending on the community’s immediate need. We act on what we learn and put cultural activities of importance into practice. This includes respecting protocols, ceremonial procedures, and guest-host responsibilities. Sometimes it means pausing service to accommodate and respect community lunch breaks or adjusting how we show gratitude to an Elder for their input and guidance.

We’ve learned the importance of relationship building to stay connected with communities throughout our planning phase, and to be aware of needs that require us to pause our work; these could include the community grieving the loss of a member, or public health outbreaks and lockdowns. We try to be mindful of seasonal timeframes for traditional activities such as hunting or fishing, to continue to show our respect for these cultural traditions.

Building partnerships

Once a community agrees to invite the Community Support Program to host a session, we work with key leaders in the community to customize it. This collaborative planning  informs our communications tactics and logistics, as well as wellness and cultural supports.

It is of utmost importance that local Indigenous leaders and organizations be consulted and involved in program and service delivery. This helps create service delivery models that fit their community’s needs. Opening and closing cultural activities also reflect practices which are important to the community. This includes a sharing circle, smudging, drumming, a pipe ceremony or prayers. In some communities, our team members wear ribbon skirts during these cultural activities as a sign of respect.

For our team, humility and openness are the keys to recognizing and implementing the diversity of Indigenous ways of working. Recognizing the knowledge and historical context present in local community leaders and support workers allows us to have respectful and collaborative conversations, which lead to meaningful sessions and, we hope, valuable support to community members. Guided by the Mishomis teaching of humility (one of our guiding principles), we remain ready and willing to be taught by communities on how to best assist them. While we still have much to learn, we are humbled to be on this journey.

About the Authors

Karine Martel is a Community Relations Lead on Argyle’s Federal Indian Day School Community Support program team. She helps tailor program design and delivery to fit each community’s unique needs. Being a Métis woman who has lived and worked in isolated Indigenous communities, Karine is committed to elevating Indigenous voices and perspectives.

Deborah Perne is a bilingual communications consultant on Argyle’s Federal Indian Day School Community Support Program team. She is passionate about cultural anthropology and leverages it in her day-to-day work in communications and media relations.

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