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The gifts of anti-racism work

April 21, 2017

This blog is part of a blog-series to be published in 2017. The blog is a personal reflection authored by an NCCDH staff member and is focused on what she has learned about racism and being anti-racist through her solidarity with Indigenous people, and how that learning informs and is informed by NCCDH staff work in this area.

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” - Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Elder, activist, educator (Australia)

This quote has inspired me for years. It is the adopted slogan of a solidarity network I belong to, one that works to protect the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Guatemala (Breaking the Silence). We have printed this quote on posters and t-shirts, questionned its origins, researched the wording.  I keep returning to it for guidance.

This blog is my contribution to a series of staff blogs in which each of us speaks about a personal aspect of our growth, as we work collectively to become an anti-racist organization.  I began with the quote above because I am reflecting on what I have learned about racism and being anti-racist through my solidarity with Indigenous people, and how that learning informs and is informed by our NCCDH staff work in this area.

As for positionality, I grew up in a small, homogenous community—white, middle class, educated—the village of Ralston in southern Alberta.  This is traditional Blackfoot Nation territory, on the border of Treaty 7 and Treaty 4 lands.  I knew nothing of this at the time. I knew the name of our nearest ‘urban’ centre, Medicine Hat, came from a pivotal event in Blackfoot Nation history, but as I looked more deeply into that story to write this blog, I realize the story I learned as a child was over-simplified, at best.  I had no relationship with the Indigenous people who lived near my community other than to be afraid of them. Things have changed a lot since I left Medicine Hat, a city that now proclaims the Blackfoot legend behind its name, and that gained international recognition when it declared, in November 2015, that it had ended homelessness.

Maybe partly because I grew up in ignorance of Southern Alberta’s Indigenous people, I have been drawn to solidarity work—to allyship—with Indigenous peoples. Bit by bit, I have been learning how to be an ally. I read books about  the history of Indigenous people in Canada and in Guatemala. I watch for opportunities to hear and meet Indigenous people; I try to push through my deeply engrained resistances and just reach out in friendship. I am liberated by learning the truth about how settlers and Indigenous people made deals with each other to share, sell or comfiscate the land we call Canada.

And I have been liberated by the wisdom of Indigenous leaders and their allies who question that there is a best way to determine the truth about anything. In 2012, as part of my NCCDH work, I learned about two-eyed seeing from from Cheryl Bartlett, former director of the former Institute for Integrative Science and Health. Documents like Understanding Racism from the National Collaborating Centre of Aboriginal Health, and Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have inspired me to find ways to act. Currently I am working with members of the Toronto Indigenous Health Advisory Circle to tell the story of how they came to publish the groundbreaking A Reclamation of Wellbeing: Visioning a thriving and healthy urban Indigenous community, and get its recommendations on policy and program agendas.

A foundational understanding in my journey is that my white privilege is only possible because others do not have it. Having interesting and well-paid work is linked to the reality that people of colour have been screened out—consciously and unconsciously—of the predominantly white education and connection opportunities I have benefitted from. My racial invisibility in going about my job is bound up with the daily acts of racism that some of my colleagues experience. If we did not societally prefer white skin over skin of colour, there would be no advantage to being white. I own land in Nova Scotia because land was stolen from the Mi’kmaq and the Peace and Friendship Treaties have not been honoured. My life is materially and socially advantaged because Indigenous people and other people of colour are being oppressed. 

More recently, I looked for ways to act in solidarity in my home province. I attended a reading by Halifax’s Poet Laureate, Rebecca Thomas, whose poetry skewers the historical and current anti-Indigenous racism of white people in Nova Scotia.  She says ‘ally’ is a verb; it means we have to do something--and not expect anyone to throw a party when we do. I started attending gatherings of the Peace and Friendship Alliance of NS. We meet in talking circle, open and close with Mi’kmaq rituals, and learn about the ways that settlers and Indigenous peoples have been separated through policy and government-fomented racism. I have met public health colleagues there.

In the process of reading and acting, I have questionned the Western view of progress that measures success in terms of material wealth. I welcome the Indigenous teachings that life is circular, not linear, and that our identity comes from our interconnectedness with all living things (“all my relations”) not just status and money. Learning about the Indigenous worldview has given me confidence to speak about my intuitive understanding that humans are first and foremost protectors of the water, air and land, and that scientifc information is only one of several important sources of knowledge about the world. These understandings, and opportunities to be in settler-Indigenous circles are liberation for me.

Janet Smylie, has the following advice for public health staff working with Indigenous communities

“Self-reflection is a powerful and demonstrated tool for learning something new, particularly when it comes to bridging human differences.  Unfortunately, it is underutilized in public health  training and practice. Rather, we are supported by our academic training and the scientific roots of our discipline to think that “we know better” than the individuals and communities we work with.

Too often, the problem is framed as the need to find ways to transfer our “better” knowledge and practice to others – leaving little room for the systems of knowledge and practice that are already in place.  We have failed with respect to Indigenous communities. We have failed not only because Indigenous populations in Canada experience significant and cross-cutting disparities in health determinants, health status and health care access (which in many cases are getting worse rather than better), but because we continue to use approaches that mirror those of the European colonists. Approaches that underestimate and/or dismiss local Indigenous systems, capacities and assets.” P. 262

Smylie, J. (2015). Approaching reconciliation: Tips from the field. Available from:



Key concepts, Racism/racialization

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